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A CurtainUp London Review
Titus Andronicus, unlike the better known trio of Shakespeare's Roman plays, has no historical base. Instead much of the plot is derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the tale of Philomel who is raped by her brother in law Tereus, has her tongue cut out and by way of revenge feeds his son to him at a feast before ending her days as a nightingale. Another obvious influence on this early 1594 Shakespeare play is Thomas Kydd's The Spanish Tragedy which although the latter was published in 1615 had been seen on stage for several decades.
What better setting is there for Titus Andronicus than to be played in the midst of a bloodthirsty rabble in this reproduction of a Jacobean theatre on the south bank of the Thames? Lucy Bailey, whose previous London productions have been very, very stylish works, wants with this rather one-themed play to give a massively entertaining production. There is little than be done in The Globe as far as lighting and elaborate sets are concerned, but William Dudley has covered some of The Globe's excess of distracting trompe l'oeil with black crepe, including the two massive stage pillars. He has also achieved a pleasing symmetry of colour in the authentically Roman costumes and given the Goths wonderful natty dreadlock style wigs and earthy checks to complement the excess of dark blue wode tattoos. Lavinia after her terrible attack is dressed like a living mummy, bound from head to foot in white bandages. I was less sure about the black lycra cycling shorts worn as toga undergarments.
This is the play where the hero is tricked into cutting off his own hand to save the life of his sons only to find that he is a victim of a Fourth Century practical joke. The architect of this joke is Aaron, who as the Queen's lover and a lascivious Moor, is in some ways an early and much cruder prototype of Othello. Who can forget the scene where Titus' daughter, Lavinia who, after being raped has had her tongue torn out and her hands cut off, and on his instructions carries her father's amputated hand off stage in her teeth? Titus and Lavinia have one hand between them.
The Pit is used to good effect letting the groundlings intermingle with the action, in the parades and the hunting scenes which are magnificently served up as spectacle. The restaurant scene sees Titus adopting a chef's toque in a magnificent send up of all those television cookery programmes. I liked too the dance of Rape, Murder and Revenge behind three giant gold masks and it helps to know that two of the clumsy dancers are men. The capture of the Gothic heirs sees them strung up by their ankles in a physically demanding feat.
Douglas Hodge, who sounded full of hoarse gravitas and emotion, reminded me of Marlon Brando with his weighty and sombrely punctuated delivery. He is a serious actor who can single handedly hold the attention of The Globe groundlings. Geraldine Alexander, veteran of five previous Globe productions, plays Tamora the vengeful Queen of the Goths with plenty of manipulation and spite. Laura Rees' Lavinia is a sympathetic figure and manages to avoid the pitfall of black humour for one so horribly mutilated. But there are moments of great comedy. Chinon accuses Aaron after Tamora has given birth to a child that is obviously not the Emperor's, " Thou hast undone our mother" to which Aaron replies, "Villain, I have done thy mother!"
For the record, here is the synopsis: Titus (Dougas Hodge) returns to Rome from a victory over the Goths with his captives, Tamora, the Queen of the Goths (Geraldine Alexander) and three of her sons, Alarbus (Ben Crystal), Chiron (Richard Riddell) and Demetrius (Sam Alexander), and her Moorish lover Aaron (Shaun Parkes). In Rome two brothers are vying to be emperor, Saturninus (Patrick Moy) and Bassianus (Simon Wilson). Two of Titus' sons have died in the battle. In Rome he buries them and, refusing the pleas of the Queen, sacrifices her eldest son, Alarbus. Titus is offered the emperorship of Rome but refuses and backs Saturninus' claim, and he in turn offers to marry Titus' daughter Lavinia (Laura Rees). Lavinia is bethrothed to Bassianus and refuses Saturninus who instead marries Tamora. Titus kills his own son Mutius (Jake Harders) for defying his orders and helping Lavinia elope to marry her choice, not her father's.
Tamora and Aaron plot revenge. Tamora's remaining two sons are sent under the cover of the hunt to rape Lavinia, murder her husband Bassianus and implicate two of Titus' sons. Tricked, Titus chops off his hand to free his sons but his hand is returned to him with the severed heads of his dead sons. Titus sends his remaining son Lucius (David Sturzaker) to raise a Goth army from his former enemies to attack Rome (Shades of Coriolanus here). Titus starts to go mad and Lavinia writes the name of her rapists in the sand with a stick. Tamora and her sons, hearing of the advance of the Goth army, visit Titus in disguise as three Roman furies, Rape, Murder and Revenge. Titus is asked to host a feast for the Emperor and Tamora and to invite Lucius. Tamora leaves her sons with Titus, he kills them and serves them at the feast in a pie to their mother and step father. After revealing details of the recipe, Titus kills Lavinia and stabs Tamora to death. Saturninus kills Titus, Lucius kills Saturninus and is declared emperor. Lucius orders Aaron buried breast deep and starved to death.
No one bothers too much about the point that Shakespeare might have been making about the Fall of Rome and infiltration of civilisation by Barbarians, in this case the Goths, being the beginning of the end. Lucy Bailey has created a superbly macabre romp with enough blood to satisfy any vampire. A canvas sheeted roped roof has been stretched across the Globe's normally open roof area for this production. This, on rainy nights, adds an extra dramatic point as we wait for the canvas strips to fill and then deluge upon the squealing groundlings below. Don't miss this vivid, gripping and wickedly funny production of the elusive Titus Andronicus.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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