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June 05, 2006

"Great theatre that is, alas, all too relevant to the times in which we live": Titus Andronicus at The Globe

Posted by David Wootton

William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus
directed by Lucy Bailey
Shakespeare's Globe, London
in repertory 20th May - 6th October 2006

David Wootton, the University of York's Anniversary Professor of History, finds the Globe's production of Titus Andronicus to be the third best production of a Shakespeare play that he has ever seen - after Olivier's Othello and the RSC Pericles at the Roundhouse.

I went to see this production the day after the press night only the review in The Independent had appeared, which described it as "the best production I've seen at Shakespeare's Globe in the ten years of its existence" which is immediately to rate Lucy Bailey's production ahead of anything by Mark Rylance or by the new artistic director at the Globe, Dominic Dromgoole.

I think it is the third best production of a Shakespeare play that I have ever seen after Olivier's Othello (dreadful, but wonderful), and the astonishing RSC Pericles at the Roundhouse, of which more later. If the main purpose of a review is to tell you whether to go or not then the answer is "Go, Go, Go!" Michael Billington in The Guardian only gives it four stars but that's because there is one scene he would do differently, and I'm not sure he is right about that: he thinks the scene in which Titus and two of his sons compete as to who shall have his hand chopped off (as ransom for Titus' other sons) should not be played for laughs, but how else can it be played? But do be careful if you are a sensitive spirit four groundlings fainted on the night I saw it (the count is from the next day's Evening Standard); at least one other person fled to throw up; and there may well have been others who collapsed more decorously in their seats. This is strong stuff.

Before I talk about the production, a word or two about the play. This is a very early play by Shakespeare, and full of references to Marlowe: it is Shakespeare's reply to Tamburlaine. It is one of very few plays by Shakespeare where he seems to have made the story up himself no source is known.

But at the same time it is clear that this is a version of Euripides' Hecuba, a play of which there were two productions last year including the remarkable award-winning production at the Donmar at least in part because of its obvious relevance to the Iraq war. This production too is timely as we live through the dying months of the Blair regime, though what it made me think of was not so much Iraq as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Like all of Shakespeare's plays, this one is carefully set in a distant time and place some moment in the late years of the Roman empire. But Shakespeare hardly bothers to keep up the pretence there are references to ruined monasteries and to popish superstitions. Titus and Lavinia his daughter lose hands one of Titus's and both of Lavinia's. Contemporaries would surely have thought of the punishment of Stubbe in 1579 he was sentenced to have his right hand cut off for writing an attack on Elizabeth's planned marriage to the Catholic Anjou. On the scaffold he raised his stump and shouted "Long Live the Queen", and for the rest of his life he signed himself scaeva or leftie. He died in 1590, fighting Catholicism in France. Contemporaries would surely have seen this play as a representation of the tragic conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, as Shakespeare's version not only of Tamburlaine but also of The Massacre at Paris.

The story is simple. Titus, victorious in the wars, refuses to pardon the life of a Goth captive; the captive's mother, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, becomes the wife of the new emperor, Saturninus (Titus has been offered the position himself but has foolishly turned it down), and she sets about taking her revenge Titus's daughter Lavinia is raped by her remaining two sons, and has her tongue cut out and her hands cut off so that she cannot name her attackers. But in the end Titus has his revenge: he serves the rapists cooked in a pie to their mother (the scene is played as a savage reimagining of a television cookery programme), and then kills his poor, maimed daughter. According to the conventions, first Tamora and then Titus are entirely justified in their actions and their thirst for revenge, so that, from the moment that Tamora acquires the power to shape the course of events catastrophe becomes inevitable. No one is really to blame. One thing leads to another, until suddenly there is no going back blood demands blood, and yet more blood.

How to present this bleak and dreadful story of rape and mayhem on the stage? This is a production in costumes that Shakespeare would have recognised, on a Shakespearean stage. But scaffolding towers carrying the actors are pushed around in the yard, the area in front of the stage, turning the dramatic space into a wooden O. Moreover the theatre has been roofed in with black canvas sails turning the open air globe into a closed space. And the stage has been swathed in black, in a set designed by William Dudley. Where are we? Lucy Bailey says, in the programme, that she has in mind an arena, but really we are back in the old Roundhouse in Chalk Farm (recently renovated), taking up where the magical RSC production of Pericles left off: common to both productions, alongside the use of space, is the use of incense to create a sense of place. Exotic music too is common to both productions, though here the haunting use of what look like early horn instruments underscores the melancholy and ominous sense of the occasion.

Douglas Hodge plays Titus, Laura Rees is Lavinia, and Geraldine Alexander is Tamora: these three, in a very strong cast, are simply outstanding. Alexander, for all that we sympathise with Tamora, is intelligent evil incarnate. Rees achieves the astonishing feat of playing the bloodbolted, tongueless, handless victim so that, for all the theatricality of the event, something absolutely real and dreadful seems to be happening hence the fainting and vomiting in the audience, which is a testimony both to Rees's performance and to the skill with which she is made up, so that blood appears to bubble and flow from her mouth, though in fact it merely glistens in the light. As for Hodge, he plays Titus as a rather unimaginative professional soldier, a conventional man, ready to retire from the wars, who is driven by grief to become a virtuoso artist, a mad genius of revenge, capable of doing to Tamora something worse than she has done to him. As Aaron, Tamora's black lover, Shaun Parkes powerfully foreshadows Shakespeare's later great invention of Iago, while also reminding us of Marlowe's Barrabbas.

What makes this a great production? The staging, which revises the appearance of the Globe, and transforms the space in which the action takes place, is brilliant. The performances are fantastic. But what goes beyond anything one might reasonably expect is the way in which this performance faces horror and stares it in the eye. It does not ritualise it (Peter Brook produced the play in the 50s with red ribbons representing blood); it does not wallow in it. It allows it to modulate into laughter, into the blackest of black comedies and the bleakest of farces. But in the end it takes it absolutely seriously. Terrible things are done and they have terrible consequences. Bailey says she wondered if she would be able to live with the play for three months; we wonder if we can live with it for three hours.

At one point the cry goes up: Will it never end? Or words to that effect, and for a moment Shakespeare ("When will this fearful slumber have an end?") seems to be quoting Martin McDonagh's terrific The Lieutenant of Inishmore ("Oh, will it never end? Will it never fecking end?"), a recent re-vision of the genre of revenge tragedy born out of the same sectarian religious conflict; and indeed Titus (which for centuries was thought not to be by Shakespeare at all) proves to be such a great play that one can honestly say it is worthy of McDonagh, and that this production is as good as the production of McDonagh's Pillow Man at the National. And the end result is a strange and terrible joy: something wonderful happens at the Globe, for to face evil may not be to conquer it or to make it bearable; but it is an enormous relief, an extraordinary achievement if the alternative is to pretend it isn't there, or isn't intolerable. This is great theatre, and theatre that is, alas, all too relevant to the times in which we live.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York.

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