Not boring

Titus Andronicus, The Globe, 25 May 2014

This revival of the 2006 production replicated its key features: a fabric roof was stretched over the yard; the tiring house and stage pillars were covered in identical dark cloth. Billows of smoke generated under the stage and meant to intensify the atmosphere, quickly dissipated into the air.

Extensive use was made of the yard for scenes like Titus’ (William Houston) triumphant return to Rome with his Goth prisoners. Steel towers on wheels were deployed to create mobile stages for sequences such as the attempting hanging of Aaron (Obi Abili).

The towers were wheeled rapidly into position, careering around the yard, forcing groundlings to move out of their way, their crew occasionally dousing those below with water. At other times the framework was struck repeatedly to create a loud metallic din.

While some of this worked, the overall impression was of a production that didn’t understand the Globe space. With good acting and direction the colourful tiring house melts into the background and is unobtrusive despite its gaudy decoration. Attempts to cover it up actually draw attention to it and away from the actors to the detriment of the overall experience.

The production added a character “Bacchus, a Roman drunk” (David Shaw-Parker) who joked with the audience in modern English and who was eventually killed in a clumsy attempt to recreate the shock of Polonius’ death in Hamlet. This also jarred with the professed intention to create a dark abattoir atmosphere.

The reveal of the mutilated Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) was played too far upstage and would have been better in a prominent position at the stage front. The moment was also slightly spoilt by some people choosing to laugh at the spectacle of Lavinia thrashing around under a net before the reveal.

Tamora (Indira Varma) at times verged towards the comedic, with a similar vibe coming from her partner in crime Aaron. This tended to counteract the darkening of mood purposed by the space redesign.

But all was not completely bleak.

The stage towers did work well as an alternative to the main stage for the threatened hanging of Aaron. The use of actors to portray hunting dogs was very nice. A net temporarily slung down into the yard to serve as the pit was an ingenious solution, but involved much herding of groundlings.

The concluding dinner scene was excellent, particularly when Tamora gestured approvingly at the pie and continuing to tuck in. She met her end with her face thrust down into the pie and stabbed. Saturninus (Matthew Needham) had his head banged down onto the same table and was also cut.

But the most pleasing moments in the production came when the actors’ skill and the text’s momentary brilliance became the focus of attention, rendering the play’s attention-seeking wrapper superfluous. This hinted that directorial design concepts were alien to the original staging and equally have no place on a recreated Elizabethan stage.

Conclusions

The trend for refashioning the Globe interior reached its absurd peak in the 2010 Macbeth production. Since then there has been a move away from such remodelling. This revived production took us back to a time when such alterations looked like progress.

A satisfied customer was heard to tell a companion that this production proved that “not all Shakespeare is boring”. This was indeed a loud, banging, crowd-pleasing spectacle. But most of the writer’s dedicated fans are glad he eventually moved on from being “not boring”.

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Harold Pinter’s Flying Circus

The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studio 1, 18 May 2013

Not even an excellent cast turning in some top notch performances could save the play from its own defects. Pinter’s look at institutional psychiatric abuse and bureaucratic bungling felt dated and this evoked some late twentieth century references in the acting.

One of the inmates had died and another had become pregnant. This reflected badly on Simon Russell Beale’s Roote, the man ostensibly in charge of the unnamed, unspecified institution. His glasses and bumbling manner were reminiscent of Ronnie Barker’s “man from the ministry” characters who mocked the self-importance of the petty bureaucrat.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, it was obvious that he not only knew the pregnant woman, but was also the father of her child.

The lampooning of bureaucracy turned to farcical physical comedy centring on a substantial Christmas cake, a gift presented to Roote by Clive Rowe’s Tubb on behalf of the ‘understaff’. Roote sliced the cake in two and presented one half to Lush, who tried to cram the entire thing into his mouth. When this proved too much to chew down in one go, he spat it out, a gesture which Roote took as an insult. The subsequent tussle ended with Lush lying on the floor, his neat suit besmeared with cake. Not exactly an average day at the office.

Roote had dithered about making a Christmas address to the inmates. But inspiration came when his lover Miss Cutts reminded him of how devastatingly attractive he had been when they first met. Roote became fired with enthusiasm by her ardent admiration, immediately grasping the microphone and delivering an eloquent speech ad lib. The rotund, ageing man’s loquacious enthusiasm was a ridiculous attempt at reliving his younger days.

John Simm’s Gibbs had a breast pocket full of pens and a clipped, efficient manner that disguised ruthless, back-stabbing ambition. The punctiliousness of his speech had hints of Eric Idle’s cheese shop owner, Mr Wensleydale. It was no surprise at the end of the play, after the massacre of the staff, that Gibbs was the only one to survive and was appointed to take charge of the facility by Christopher Timothy’s Lobb.

John Heffernan’s Lush, a camp presence in a purple suit, seemed to be channelling aspects of Kenneth Williams.

Harry Melling’s Lamb was a new, junior member of staff, full of nerves and new ideas. He was unpopular and consequently made a scapegoat: despite obvious indications to the contrary, he was blamed for the pregnancy and later for the massacre.

But the most spectacular character was without doubt Indira Varma’s sex kitten Miss Cutts. She pouted like Carol Cleveland, resplendent in a pointy bra. She flashed her thigh and suspenders at poor nervous Lamb, who ignored her advances. She taunted him during his subsequent interrogation. Her long list of questions about what aspects of women might frighten him included “Their thighs?”

She presented herself to Roote in her nightie, reclined and arched her back, asking him if she were feminine enough. Flirting with Gibbs, she pouted as she played erotically with a table tennis ball near her mouth, reclined showing her stomach, before creeping towards Gibbs on her hands and knees, speaking of “intimacy”.

The small stage was divided into three distinct zones, all huge metal radiators and period furniture, to represent various rooms. Lighting was used to switch between them, the actors sometimes freezing motionless in the shadows when the action moved away. The set featured the staircase specified for a few brief sequences. The eerie sound effects in the stage directions were accurately reproduced.

The first half of the performance established the characters and the basic situation very nicely. But the second half wavered, providing only a weak development of that story, interspersed with gags at the expense of the institution.

Despite a scene in which the put-upon Lamb was tortured in a brutal experiment overseen from another room by Cutts and Gibbs, the play did not create any real outrage at the abuses of psychiatry. Electroshock treatments were a feature of medicine of that period, but today concerns centre on the pathologising of normal behaviour and the misuse of drugs.

Today this facility would be outsourced and owned offshore. A contemporary writer would more likely produce a satire on privatisation. Another symptom of the play’s inherent datedness was the use of the N- word twice as a colour descriptor.

Far from cutting-edge, this play induced the cast to regress to late twentieth century archetypes in order to present a museum piece that really required explanation to be fully appreciated.