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Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 4th May 2014 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin
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Saturninus (Matthew Needham), Titus Andronicus (William Houston), Tamora (Indira Varma)

Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.

This is William Shakespeare's first great success and his most gruesome play. Obviously, several members of the audience fainted during press night. When I went to review it yesterday, one person had to be accompanied outside. Inspired by Seneca's Thyestes and possibly Philomel from Ovid's Metamorphoses, this revenge tragedy includes murder, rape, mutilation, and cannibalism. Seneca lived under Caligula's and Nero's reign so it is not surprising that his plays were somewhat dark. However, they were never performed, just read. I have seen a number of  Titus Andronicus productions: Some of them just hinted at the atrocities, others like Lucy Bailey's 2006 production, that now returns to the Globe, present realistic images. Bailey thinks that our experience of film violence today is so profound that a rituliased idea like in Peter Brook's production would not communicate so well. There is a touch of Quentin Tarantino in her Titus.

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Flora Spencer- Longhurst as Lavinia

Saturninus and Bassianus, sons of the late emperor of Rome, are competing for the succession. General Titus Andronicus has defeated the Goths and returns with their queen Tamora, her three sons and her black servant and secret lover Aaron as captives. Many Roman soldiers have died, among them sons of Titus Andronicus, and they demand a human sacrifice. Despite Tamora's pleas Titus Andronicus sacrifices her eldest son and Tamora swears to have her revenge on the general. Titus rejects the offer to become the new emperor and nominates Saturninus instead. Saturninus offers to marry Lavinia in return but she is already betrothed to his brother Bassianus. Hurt and rejected, Saturninus marries Tamora thereby making her empress. Tamora and Aaron now have the means to plot their revenge.

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The crucial mistake that Titus Andronicus makes is the sacrifice of Tamora's son. It leads to a chain of tragic events that could have been avoided by showing mercy. Yet there is no room for mercy in this cruel universe that Shakespeare paints in his horrible revenge tragedy.

Lucy Bailey creates a dark world - the stage, the columns, even the open ceiling is covered with black cloth. The audience is used as the Roman public, as supporters of either Saturninus or Bassianus, as assessories in the death of the jovial drunkard Bacchus, as the jublilant crowd during Titus Andronicus' victory parade or when the Goths present the captured Aaron to the crowd. Making the audience complicit could not work quite so well on a proscenium stage. The groundlings truly are part of the action.

William Houston is excellent as the gifted general who spirals into insanity due to the horrors he has to endure. The seeds for his madness are already laid by the death of his sons during the war against the Goths. He is so unstable that he stabs his eldest son just because he wants to prevent Titus from forcing Lavinia into a marriage with Saturninus. The ensuing atrocities regarding his children and himself seem to drive him into complete lunacy but he is sane enough to lay a trap for Tamora and her sons. There are traces of Shakespeare's later masterpiece Hamlet in Titus' play acting. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is exceptional as Lavinia, the most pitiful character in all of Shakespeare's work. Lucy Bailey ensures that Lavinia's suffering is clearly seen by all. Her clothes are drenched in blood, blood is splurting from her mouth when she attempts to speak, and she tries to hug herself with her bloody stumps. Her uncle Marcus Andronicus, read by Martin Turner as Ian Gelder was suffering from laryngitis, does not really need to tell us what happened to the girl. Matthew Needham plays Saturninus as a spoiled, childish boy who is looking for an attractive mother when choosing Tamora, who now rules through him. Indira Varma is seductive and calculating as the smooth talking Goth Queen. Obi Abili gives an outstanding performance as Aaron who indulges in his viciousness and regrets any good deed he might have done. 

This is a very powerful production of a play that is still very relevant today.

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 13th July 2014
Shakespeare's Globe, Bankside
http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/titus

Comments

2 Comments

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 3 years ago
    Wow! Shakespeare meets Quentin Tarantino?
  • Carolin Kopplin
    by Carolin Kopplin 3 years ago
    Yes, but it is a different style altogether.
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