Sunday, June 08, 2014

"Why dost thou laugh? it fits not with this hour"

Sometimes it takes a while to get used to an auditorium.  You go, you see productions but nothing particularly happens around you, the walls don't bounce anything back at you.  It usually takes a great production to get you to react to the space as well as to what you are seeing.

I have been to the Globe Theatre at Southwark a few times but have never liked any of the productions enough to warm to the theatre itself, however I think that might now have changed thanks to Lucy Bailey's thrilling, notorious TITUS ANDRONICUS.

It's not that often that theatre productions - classical theatre productions at that - jump from the review pages into the news sections of papers but Bailey's production has been getting column inches over the number of audience members who have been passing out during the more gory moments of Shakespeare's first revenge tragedy.  Yeah, sure I thought.  Good going Globe on the hype.

I had never experienced TITUS on stage before but had enjoyed Julie Taymor's stylish 1999 film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins as the put-upon Roman general, Jessica Lange as his nemesis Tamora Queen of the Goths and Alan Cumming (channelling his performance of the MC in CABARET) as dissolute Emperor Saturninus.

Owen had booked the tickets in a rush of Shakespearean vigour after we saw Eileen Atkins' magical Ellen Terry show in the new Wanamaker Theatre next door to the Globe and as the days drew closer to last Thursday I found myself getting more excited about seeing it.  Our seats were at the end of the first circle so we had the stage side-on to us but also a good view of the groundlings.  This was actually a stroke of luck as Bailey has the action spill off the stage and in and around the standing punters who were - not too politely - pushed around by the actors to make way for moving metal platforms, marching soldiers etc.  Those at the front were also frequently exposed to thick plumes of smoke that issued out from under the stage!  That'll learn 'em.

William Dudley's design has the usual brightly coloured stage swathed in black material and black netting stretches across the open roof to echo the design of Roman Pantheon.  Two large smoking braziers billowed the heavy scent of incense into the air which added to the sombre, claustrophobic atmosphere.

Titus returns to Rome victorious from a war against the Goths with his captives: Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, her three sons and her servant (and secret lover) Aaron the Moor.  To avenge two of his sons who were killed in battle he orders for Tamora's eldest son to be executed.  Despite Tamora's desperate pleas for mercy from one parent to another, he carries out her son's death.  As in KING LEAR one misjudgement brings down tragedy.  Tamora vows she will avenge this cruel act, with the chance coming sooner than she expected.

Rome is in tumult with the dead Emperor's sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, challenging for the throne.  The people of Rome however declare they want Titus to be Emperor.  He, always the good servant to the elite, refuses them and declares his support for Saturninus.  Saturninus repays him by announcing he will marry Titus' daughter Lavinia despite the fact that she and Bassianus are betrothed.  When the couple and his other sons react angrily to the Emperor, an angry Titus lashes out and kills his younger son.  Bored at their in-fighting - and to punish Titus - Saturninus chooses to marry Tamora instead.  Immediately grasping her chance, Tamora implores her new husband to forgive the Andronicus family and to let Lavinia and Bassianus marry.

Tamora, Aaron and her two remaining sons Chiron and Demetrius enact their revenge during the Emperor's hunting party in a forest.  Trapping the young lovers alone, Tamora's sons murder Bassianus and throw his body in a camouflaged pit and, with Aaron goading them on, rape Lavinia and, to stop her from identifying them, cut out her tongue and cut her hands off.  Aaron frames Titus' sons Martius and Quintus to make it look like they murdered Bassianus and Saturninus orders their execution.

Titus' brother Marcus discovers the mutilated Lavinia and brings her to Titus closely followed by Aaron who tells Titus that Saturninus will spare his sons if Titus cuts off a hand and sends it back with Aaron.  Although Marcus and his last living son Lucius argue over the action Titus does what is demanded and a gloating Aaron leaves.  Yes you guessed... his dismembered hand is returned to him, along with the severed heads of his sons.

Well these are the scenes that sort out the men from the boys.  As Lavinia tottered onto the stage, mouth pouring blood and jerking her stumps about I noticed in my peripheral vision the first person being helped out of the pit in a wheelchair... then I saw a tall man in a suit towards the back of the standing punters go *wobble* *crash* - cue another wheelchair appearing to help him out!  As Titus hacked off his hand upstage we heard a dull thud from further along from us and as Lavinia coughed up another stream of blood onto the stage I saw a girl being led out from the audience standing at the front of the stage shaking and white as a sheet.

Me?  I was grinning from ear to ear!  Partly because the ushers who were doing the fetching and carrying were all old grey-haired ladies who are obviously used to all this carry-on and also because I could see, in my mind's eye, Shakespeare then a successful playwright in his late 20s around 1591 cackling with delight as, quill in hand, he wrote quickly across his parchment saying "Oooh I can do this - and then I can do this - oh and I can do THIS too!"  The play exhibits his excitement at attempting his first revenge drama, a genre that had been hugely popular since Thomas Kyd's THE SPANISH TRAGEDY about ten years before.

I found it fascinating to see that here that, despite all the travails that he suffers, Shakespeare cannot make Titus a sympathetic character.  I likened it earlier to KING LEAR and although Lear also starts out as a vainglorious tyrant, by the end of that play Shakespeare has made him a universal figure for pity and sympathy - by the time we reach the famous climax of TITUS with the stage looking like a charnal house, Titus is exactly the same as he was at the top of the play.  I think this is due to the 15 year gap between the plays during which Shakespeare honed his craft and discovered how to give his characters more internalisation.

Something else that struck me is - as in LEAR - no mention is ever made of Mrs Andronicus.  Is she still living?  If she is why doesn't she ever come out of the house?  I can only presume that she wore out from giving birth to Titus' seven children.  Indeed Lucius, the only son left alive at the end of the play, has his own son - Shakespeare could only stretch to Young Lucius as a name - with no mention again of a wife/mother.

I must admit that a couple of times John Gielgud came to mind too.  He never played the role - it's remarkable how few of our acknowledged great actors have - but a critic once said of him that in tights he had "the most meaningless legs imaginable"!  That quote came to mind when I saw Steffan Donnelly as Bassianus standing on two strings of spaghetti with knots tied in the middle - they were quite distracting.

Gielgud also saw Peter Brook's 1955 production at Stratford which starred Laurence Olivier as Titus and Vivien Leigh as Lavinia.  In the play, Titus has Lavinia hold a stick between her stumps and write the names of the rapists in the sand and on the night Gielgud was in, Vivien dropped the stick while she was attempting to write the names.  He went to see her backstage and greeted her with "Butterstumps!"  In a letter afterwards he wrote that Olivier was excellent, but that "poor Vivien seems in a very bad way.  She is utterly ineffective on the stage, like paper, only not so thick".

Lucy Bailey (this is a revival of a 2006 production when Douglas Hodge was Titus) has directed the play with a remarkable clear-eyed approach, the three hours runing time slip by unnoticed, and her determination to stare the atrocities of the play in the face gives it the intensity that so lays waste some members of the audience.

What was fascinating is how she has found the underlying black humour so integral to the play's strength, there were as many intentional laughs as horrific moments - but then the best horror is offset by humour.  If you thought Iago was unapologetically gleeful in his actions, wait till you meet Aaron whose last lines sum up his nihilism while being led to his death:


In the best performances of the evening, Obi Abili was excellent as Aaron, seizing every opportunity to delight in his actions and to include the audience in on his intentions while Indira Varma was deliciously nasty as Tamora, turning on a Denarius from Saturninus' conciliatory bride to Aaron's ravenous lover to Titus' Furie.

But is she evil?  Tamora has every right to want Titus's downfall due to his unwarrented killing of her son and is he the good character in his own story?  Titus is a domineering military bully who kills his youngest son for daring to stand up to him and who has little concern for his daughter's happiness and even Lavinia displays nothing but withering contempt for Tamora and her plight.   What makes Aaron and Tamora evil is the way they set about their revenge.

I also liked Matthew Needham's whining demanding Saturninus, a nasty spoilt brat playing at being a grown-up and Samuel Edward-Cook and Brian Martin were also good as Tamora's muredrous sons.  Flora Spencer-Longhurst was an affecting Lavinia but the role is a difficult one with few lines at the start of the play to engage the audience and then being but a mute witness to the events that follow her rape and mutilation.  I also liked Ian Gelder as a sympathetic Marcus Andronicus.  I also want to credit the nerve-shredding score of Django Bates.

William Houston was certainly effective as Titus but I grew to dislike his schtick of going from a resonant chest voice up into a wheedling head voice when exasperated or feining madness.  Despite these occasional flaws I loved this production for introducing me properly to Shakespeare's gory early play and for it's heightened theatricality - and yes, I think I have come to appreciate the Globe's special atmosphere.

Now if they could just sort out the Hell that is the forecourt during the interval.

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