Tipping the doublet

The Roaring Girl, Swan Stratford, 17 May 2014

Moll Cutpurse (Lisa Dillon) lounged in an ornate chair, one leg hooked casually over the armrest as she smoked a cigarette in insolent rebellion, looking very much the lad in her short hair, faded jeans, white short-sleeved shirt and boots.

She addressed the prologue of the play to the audience, explaining that long-awaited plays create high expectations and that based on the title alone, we might speculate about what type of ‘roaring girl’ we would encounter “For of that tribe are many”. Behind her dim figures of women represented other forms of roaring girl, making the point that Moll was just one of many types.

Music was played intermittently by a band called The Cutpurses.

The setting in the Victorian era was astute, as it is near enough to the present for an audience to feel a connection with the now, but also far enough removed for the characters’ dated attitudes to appear realistic.

Mary (Faye Castelow) and Sebastian (Joe Bannister) provided a fairly standard presentation of frustrated love, with the disguised heroine sneaked in by Neatfoot (Christopher Middleton) to see her intended, both of them very decent and wholesome types (1.1). But the choice to have Mary disguised and at first unrecognisable was obviously meant to trigger subliminally our thoughts relating to reality, disguise and true identity.

The parallel between the two principal women was further emphasised by the fact that he also called her Moll.

Sebastian told Mary that he intended to pursue another woman called Moll as a ruse to obtain his father Sir Alexander’s consent to marry her.

The men sat round the large table at Sir Alexander’s house came forward, allowing the man himself (David Rintoul) to look out at the audience in his “galleries”, a reference to his large library of books, of which he said “all of heads the room seems made” (1.2). The Swan was an ideal setting for this theatrical in-joke: it does indeed call its own upper seating areas “galleries”. The very male atmosphere of after-dinner conviviality continued.

Sir Alexander described a clearly invented meeting with another man who bemoaned his son’s dalliance with an unsuitable woman, before openly arguing with Sebastian about his “cutpurse drab”. This false tale, designed to rile up his son, established him as powerful and arrogant, and increased our sympathy for Sebastian when he spoke up for himself.

The text was edited to remove confusing references but this sometimes had the effect of changing the tone and significance of exchanges, such as in this scene the removal of the phrase “I’ll give thee rats-bane rather” from the exchange between Sebastian and Sir Alexander. This removed “rats-bane” but made Sir Alexander less aggressive.

Sebastian stormed off determined to have his desires, leaving Sir Alexander to encounter and recruit Trapdoor (Geoffrey Freshwater).

The reference to “Saints days” was changed to “bank holiday”, which did nothing but create a modern feel to the exchange because Sir Alexander was predicting rain.

Trapdoor looked and sounded like the kind of East End lowlife common in Victorian fiction and his chilling prediction that he, a roaring boy, would put down the Roaring Girl, set up an interesting expectation of conflict.

There was a musical interlude with Moll playing electric guitar as the set was changed to bring in the dinner table for the next scene. Still in modern clothes, this Roaring Girl was a contemporary figure, which created the subtle impression that her appearance subsequently within the action of the play was Moll going back in time. At the very least the shift in attire created a connection between past and present.

A three-part glass cabinet display was brought in for the apothecary shop, this tripartite structure was a nod to the original stage directions to have three shops side by side (2.1). The actual arrangement here was slightly different.

The gallants came across Mistress Gallipot (Lizzie Hopley) who was grinding tobacco suggestively. The text was changed to create a joke about a woman’s husband becoming bankrupt and “shag” becoming her fortune.

The double entendres with the tobacco pipe still worked and she purred as she handed Laxton (Keir Charles) his pipe: he said that he wished it was always handled that way. Mistress Gallipot was characterised by her silly but raucous laugh.

Laxton begged money from her which she handed over under the guise of a supply of tobacco. Even though the cash was in notes, it was still referred to as “angels”. The text editors probably baulked at substituting anything else.

The feather shop was represented downstage by mannequins with feathers, which worked well. “Simon and Jude’s rain” was changed to “bank holiday rain”, substituting a contemporary expression.

The seamstress shop appeared centre stage with the comical couple of Mr and Mrs Openwork (Tony Jayawardena & Harvey Virdi). He was a big man and his wife was commensurately buxom.

Moll made her first appearance within the play in a hat, a long skirt with a bustle, and a jerkin type top, looking almost feminine in comparison with her initial appearance in distinctly male gear.

This had the effect of making her first scheduled appearance less strikingly unusual than her previous ones as Prologue and musician. Her attire was comparatively conservative. Although very distinctive, she seemed less out of place than might have been expected. This seeded the idea that she was not as anarchic and unruly as her reputation had been painted, particularly by Sir Alexander.

Given her previous overtly modern male garb, any concession to the dress conventions of the time looked like conformity. They thought that she was the complete rebel, whereas the audience saw something more in line with the conventions of the period of the play’s setting.

She was accompanied by her female Maid (Joan Iyiola) who held an umbrella over her head. Laxton was obviously smitten. She had short hair but the long skirt bottom meant that at this stage she was not so obviously dressed as a man as she had been in her extra-textual appearances earlier on.

Moll visited the seamstress’s shop and Mr Openwork tripped up and fell to his knees in front of her groin, prompting his wife’s comment about him being in the “low countries doing a mischief”. Mistress Openwork touched her body saying she was blessed with “good ware” but complained about her husband’s lack of attention “for when I open it up I take nothing”.

It was interesting that by this point the other characters had been behaving in various underhand and lewd ways, suggesting and acting out all types of impropriety, but Moll herself was simply shopping: her only contravention of accepted mores being sartorial. It was therefore apt that this should be taking place amid clothes shops.

Gull (Tom Padley) – and not the original’s Fellow – entered for the first time and Moll overpowered him with her knife, taking revenge for the slight he had given her. She said she had been “insulted” rather than “abused”. A more warranted alteration was the substitution of “stallion” for “stone horse”.

Laxton was highly impressed and asked her out. The proposed locations were changed to Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common and Stoke Newington cemetery. She agreed and he paid her money, making it plain that this was a commercial transaction. The original locations of their agreed assignation, Holborn and Gray’s Inn Fields, were kept.

Moll gave a hint of her omnivorous appetite by saying she would like to test Mrs Tiltyard’s (Liz Crowther) honesty. This occurred in conversation with Jack Dapper (Ian Bonar), who with his extravagant dress and professed dislike of women was positioned as effeminate, certainly in comparison with Moll.

Goshawk (Peter Bray) tried to work on Mistress Openwork by suggesting that her husband had a suburban whore.

Trapdoor offered his service to Moll and vaunted his strength, but she easily tripped him and proved his boasting empty. Nevertheless she told him to meet her at Gray’s Inn later.

The shopkeepers headed off for Dalston, changed from the “Hogsden” of the original.

Sebastian stood in the rain at a location that was not obviously Moll’s house and spoke his heart, overheard by his father at the side (2.2). Sebastian became aware of the lurking presence and directed some of his comments pointedly at him. The RSC prompt book made it explicit that he spotted his father and tailored his speech to suit his audience, which is not in the original play’s SDs. “Yea, are you so near?” was turned into Sebastian spotting Sir Alexander.

Moll was accompanied by a Porter (Michael Moreland) who carried in a huge double bass in a case on his back. Sebastian was quite touching in his attempt to pick her up and she was very courteous in her response. She had “no humour to marry” and her comment that she liked to “lie on both sides of the bed” could have been taken to have a hidden meaning. As she put it herself, she was “man enough for a woman”.

Moll’s amazingly opaque phrase “Never choose a wife as if you were going to Virginia” was left in, but Sebastian mouthed it again with a puzzled expression. What would have been comprehensible to the original audience, here became a facet of Moll’s mysterious otherness.

Openwork caught up with her and tried to measure her for her Dutch slop. She hoisted up her skirt to reveal her tattooed legs and went along with the lewd innuendo of their exchange.

Sir Alexander came forward and openly challenged Sebastian about his proposed marriage to Moll. The word “ordinaries” became “pubs”. Sebastian defended Moll by pointing out that she was “loose in nothing but in mirth”.

At Gray’s Inn Fields it was possible to take an instant dislike to Laxton who we saw was a regular whore chaser (3.1). Moll now appeared in a top hat and tails with wisps of male facial hair on her chin, a look very reminiscent of the film character Albert Nobbs.

The point at which Moll encountered her most vicious adversary was also the point at which she donned her most fearsome battledress.

She confronted him with his villainy and threw the money envelope back at him. It fell on the ground and they fought over it. They used their canes in the manner of swords, which was a neat use of Victorian conventions. Moll eventually overpowered him and threatened his chest with a knife as she promised to “write so much upon your breast”.

Her attack on him was against lax morals and in defence of girls who wanted to maintain a reputation for chastity. As she put it “Has mirth no kindred in the world but lust?” She continued:

“I scorn to prostitute myself to a man,
I that can prostitute a man to me.”

This would be pretty strong stuff in any age, but taking account of the date of composition in 1611, it begins to look very radical.

Laxton’s phrase “lecherous voyage” became “sexy jaunt”, which was clumsy and probably unnecessary.

He timidly surrendered, leaving Moll to comment that she would like to meet all her enemies that way one at a time.

Disguise

Trapdoor turned up as arranged and Moll took advantage of her disguise to trick him before eventually revealing her identity.

Given her previous hints at her omnivorous tastes, Moll’s line “sometimes I lie about Chick Lane” took on extra shades of meaning. This was originally a reference to a notoriously rough area, but in the context of this staging the expression could be taken as a euphemism for bisexuality.

As they exited Trapdoor picked up the envelope containing the money abandoned by Laxton, but Moll forced him to hand it over.

The order of the last two scenes in act three was reversed, so that 3.3 followed next.

Sir Alexander was walking upstage with Sir Davy (Colin Anthony Brown) when Trapdoor caught his attention. He stepped through the iron gate separating them to speak with Trapdoor, pretending to his companion that this was some business arrangement. Trapdoor informed Sir Alexander that his son and Moll were due to meet at his house. “Your son and her moon” in conjunction was illustrated by Trapdoor poking his index finger in and out of a hole formed by the fingers and thumb of his other hand. They then both pretended to wrangle to provide a pretext for their meeting.

Sir Davy explained that he wanted to have his own son arrested so that prison might teach him a lesson. The character of “Curtilax” was changed to “Cutlass” (Michael Moreland again) but his partner “Hanger” (Ken Nwosu) stayed the same. They received their instructions and prepared an ambush.

Trapdoor now carried the umbrella over Moll’s head in the same way that her maid had done before. They entered on the gallery walkway. They sensed the presence of law enforcement and their references to smelling “carrion” and “I spy ravens” were changed to the more contemporary “something rotten” and “I spy filth”.

The officers took up position behind the metal gate upstage. Jack and Gull entered and were about to be taken, but Moll and Trapdoor shouted a warning to them enabling them to escape. However, the staging of this was a little vague and did not make it clear what was going on.

The final rhyming couplet in Moll’s parting speech was cut so that she exited just saying “I’m glad I have done one perfect good deed today.”

Mistress Gallipot scolded her husband (Timothy Speyer) before retrieving Laxton’s letter and teasing the audience with the trick, involving a delivery of medicinal herbs, by which it was sent to her (3.2).

She read its proclamations of love and stumbled over its references to figures from classical literature, adding “Who are all these people?”

When her husband discovered the letter she tore it into pieces rather than let him read it. At this point the acting style changed to Victorian melodrama, perhaps prompted by the decision to set the play in that era. The style worked very well as the couple comically over-reacted with heightened emotion to the situation. Mrs Gallipot invented a story in which she had been betrothed to Laxton but had married Mr Gallipot once Laxton had been presumed dead somewhere in France.

She managed to convince her husband that Laxton could be assuaged with thirty pounds to cover his expenses in coming to recover her.

The others arrived and Goshawk explained to Mistress Openwork that Gallipot had annoyed his wife, and that she might soon be similarly annoyed if her own husband came home late from visiting his whore. She rejected the idea, caressing herself and praising her “fresher meat” over any “stale mutton” her husband might find elsewhere.

There followed a brilliant sequence in which Laxton met the Gallipots, and Mistress Gallipot had to signal to him that she had “opened all before him concerning you”, a staple of many a farce and sitcom. Laxton had to work out the fake story that Mistress Gallipot had invented and then play along with it convincingly.

Master Gallipot mentioned the precontract, which Laxton had to hastily integrate into his version. Mistress Gallipot fell to her knees in supplication, a gesture which once again looked like a sexual act. But as soon as Laxton realised that Gallipot intended to pay him off he readily accepted the cash, leaving him to make a villainous snarling remark to close the first half: “You are apple-eaters all, deceivers still.”

The second half began with a table set up centre stage above which hung a low chandelier (4.1). This enabled Sir Alexander, assisted by Trapdoor, to prep the room by hanging his expensive watch and other trinkets from it, in order to trap Moll into stealing them.

Sebastian appeared with Mary (dressed in a fetching check three-piece suit, her hair tied up) and Moll who was wearing simple trousers and shirt, her chin seemingly more bestubbled than before.

Moll commented on how her tailor had fitted Mary with her suit and in so doing she seemed to linger by her in an overfriendly manner, hinted once again at her omnivorousness.

Sebastian and Mary kissed and he commented on how he liked her look and how her kisses seemed “worth a pair of two”.

The “viol” that Sebastian asked Moll to play was in fact the huge double bass that had been seen earlier. This was a much better instrument than the rather tame looking viol da gamba.

Moll played a song while strumming the bass with her fingers. The words of the song were slightly altered, but the phrase “those hypocrites” was added and at this point Moll paused for effect, indicating that it was the hypocrisy of those “halfwits… who call me whore first” that vexed her.

Moll passed the bass to Sebastian. She then noticed and retrieved the watch and other jewels from the chandelier. Sebastian recognised a sound made by his father and hastily pretended that Moll was his music teacher. She put on a French accent to add to her mystique.

They also decided that they had to hide Mary, so she ducked under the desk and then hid behind the large double bass, which was then comically repositioned each time that Sir Alexander moved so that Mary could crouch and hide behind it. This visual gag was extended to them letting go completely of the double bass at one point, so that the hidden Mary was holding it miraculously in place. She eventually took flight off one of the walkways.

Sir Alexander paid Moll with coins with holes as a trick: “These will I make induction to her ruin”.

The three mistresses Openwork, Gallipot and Tiltyard sat on chairs and had a gab (4.2). Openwork explained that Goshawk had tried to convince her that her husband was visiting a whore in Brentford, but was only doing so to try to “make me cry quack”, a phrase she explained by briefly flexing her knees apart.

The text was altered slightly so that Goshawk implied that he was running all three of the women and not just the two “mills” and “swans” of the text.

Master Openwork caught up with Goshawk and there was something confidently confrontational about his greeting to him.

Mistress Openwork accused her husband of having a dalliance at Brentford, which led into more melodramatic histrionics which provided some excellent comic relief. With Mistress Openwork saying things like “You have struck ten thousand daggers through my heart” the melodramatic excess seemed completely warranted by the text.

Openwork realised that someone had falsely accused him of chasing whores, which made Goshawk nervous at being unmasked. Mistress Openwork refused to name her informant. But when Openwork asked the other two women if they knew his accuser, Gallipot said no and Tiltyard said yes simultaneously before putting her hand over her mouth.

Openwork demanded that Goshawk tell if he knew, which he denied. This prompted the women to accuse Goshawk and he shamefully confessed. Despite the furious emotion that had preceded, Openwork forgave him and himself admitted that he had led Goshawk to believe that he had a whore at Brentford, but only to see whether Goshawk were as wanton as he had suspected. So peace and tranquillity were restored in an unlikely turn of events.

Goshawk had learnt his lesson and promised not to “deal upon men’s wives” any more.

Laxton entered disguised as a legal official in a wig, with a crutch and holding one leg off the ground to appear one-legged. He issued the Gallipots with a summons for more money relating to the precontract. After some bickering between Mistress Gallipot and Laxton, he was unmasked and the whole truth came out: that the story about the precontract had been a ruse, that Mistress Gallipot had been tricked into procuring him money, but that Laxton had not actually bedded her. She was now fed up with his tricks and constant demands.

Laxton then invented another story, claiming that he had only pursued her to establish if she were as constant as she had made out. Gallipot fell for this, to the extent that he invited Laxton to dinner while castigating his wife for being a tease. The obvious injustice of this tied in nicely with the overall theme of the play of men maltreating women.

Arrest

Jack thanked Moll up on the gallery for saving him from arrest (5.1). From this scene were cut Lord Noland, Beauteous Ganymede and Tearcat. Trapdoor was missing presumed lost after Moll realised he had been working for Sir Alexander.

As Jack was explaining that it was his own father who had arranged to have him sent to prison, Trapdoor entered on the main stage disguised as a Chelsea pensioner/war veteran. He limped in on two crutches, the visual resemblance between him and Dickens’ Tiny Tim prompted his remark “God bless us every one”.

Trapdoor tried to beg from Jack and Moll, who questioned him about his military service. His long rambling list of campaigns and the nationalities of his comrades did not impress. As he itemised the various places in Italy he claimed to have been, Moll repeated his “Montepulciano” under her breath in disbelief.

Moll pulled his eye patch away from his face when she confronted him with his lies.

Trapdoor had learnt beggars canting language and the discussion moved onto this. Jack wanted to learn it also when he heard Moll translating what Trapdoor was saying.

Trapdoor suggested (in cant) that Moll and he go out thieving together and then “wap” and “niggle”. Moll translated most of this but not the last term. Jack insisted on knowing, so Trapdoor demonstrated by referring to it as “fadoodling” accompanied by a lewd gesture.

The canting song was turned into a big musical number. Both Moll and Trapdoor acquired mics and the band came out to play turning it into a rap. Other members of the cast joined them and provided appropriate sassy dance moves. Everyone had a whale of a time as the canting song was blasted out, with the lines shared between Moll and Trapdoor.

However, the actual words of the canting song were indistinguishable so that it was difficult to discern what was being said.

The intended victims of the cutpurses were changed from the minor characters Lord Noland and Sir Thomas of the original text to Mary’s father Sir Guy Fitzallard (Ian Redford) and Jack’s father Sir Davy.

Moll observed the cutpurses and quickly explained their various job titles and tactics to Jack before intercepting stolen the wallet as it was thrown from one thief to another and restoring it to its rightful owner.

The original text’s joke about someone losing a purse “at the last new play at the Swan” worked beautifully here in the Stratford Swan Theatre with Moll giving a knowing look to the audience.

Sir Davy and Sir Guy asked Moll how she knew these people and why she was known as Moll Cutpurse. This was the cue for Moll’s long speech explaining that her knowledge of the criminal world did not make her an integral part of it, summarised with “Must you have a black, ill name because ill things you know?”

She had become known as Moll Cutpurse because of this but she did not care. Crucially, it was now Sir Guy who praised her “brave mind”.

The connection now established between Sir Guy and Moll, facilitated by the change to the cast in this sequence, would serve a useful purpose later.

At his house, Sir Alexander was in uproar as Goshawk told him that Sebastian and Moll were to be married but no one knew for certain where they were (5.2).

Sir Guy and Jack broke in upon them. Sir Jack was unhappy at Sir Alexander’s treatment of his daughter, but seemingly happy that he was now to be repaid by his son marrying Moll instead.

Amid the chaos, Sir Guy said that he would wager Sebastian’s revenues that he could prevent the marriage. In his desperation Sir Alexander similarly pledged that he would give Sebastian half his wealth if he would marry anyone but Moll. Sir Guy justified his decision by saying that he liked Sebastian because he had loved his daughter and thought that more money would make him choose someone of higher status that Moll.

Moll appeared briefly in her man’s clothes and was asked if this was her wedding gown before she disappeared again. She met downstage with Mary, who was holding a wedding veil. This created the immediate expectation that the next person to be seen wearing that veil would be Mary.

Goshawk tried to reassure Sir Alexander that no priest would marry his son to Moll. His comment that “it was never known that two men were married and conjoined in one” drew some murmurs from the audience in the light of recent legislative changes in the UK.

Sir Alexander repeatedly said that he would be happy whomever Sebastian married.

Sebastian entered accompanied by a veiled figure in a white wedding dress together with Mary’s father Sir Guy. Sir Alexander was overjoyed to see such a feminine bride at Sebastian’s side, but when he lifted the veil it was Moll grinning back at him and she proceeded to run amok with much glee.

Moll congratulated Sir Alexander that he would now be a figure of note for having her as a daughter-in-law rather than being the obscure figure he had been to date.

Sir Guy, undoubtedly as part of the general ruse, asked to be freed from his promise to give money to Sebastian, offering in return to accept Sir Alexander’s retraction of his pledge. But Sir Alexander was determined to press on.

Sir Guy took this as the cue to spring the trap and to call in the real couple: Sebastian entered accompanied by Mary in a dark coloured wedding outfit. Sir Alexander was overjoyed and apologised for rejecting her previously.

The fact that it had been Sir Guy who had encountered and praised Moll’s character earlier made it more credible that he had been recruited to Moll’s scheme through that bond of admiration.

Moll pointed out that she had had a hand in the scheme, to which Sir Alexander replied that he could not condemn her. After batting away that remark, she pointed out that Sir Alexander had made the crucial mistake of assuming that she would have automatically consented to Sebastian’s advances.

She riddled when asked when she would herself marry, and Sir Alexander admitted that he had wronged her too. Trapdoor confessed to having worked with Sir Alexander to ensnare Moll, obliging the now very contrite Sir Alexander to apologise once again. Moll returned the money he had give her for her music tuition, but he insisted he would “thrice double” the payment to “make thy wrongs amends”, before he joyfully summarised how happily this eventful day had concluded.

Moll stayed behind to deliver the epilogue, which was altered towards the end, so that she said:

“The Roaring Girl here herself shall hence upon this stage give larger recompense”

instead of the text’s:

“The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, shall on this stage give larger recompense”.

This changed the original’s opaque reference to a reappearance by Mary Frith or the actor playing her, into a general statement about the character continuing to live on the stage beyond the bounds of this particular play.

Conclusions

The play that gave its name to the entire RSC season of female-centric drama was made relevant without cutting completely loose from its historical roots. The key was the production’s setting in the halfway house of the Victorian era.

An intelligent change to the casting of one scene improved on the original by giving Sir Guy Fitzallard a credible reason for assisting Moll.

The play teaches a moral lesson about making assumptions.

The Roaring Girl is a good girl really.

Spectre

Arden of Faversham, Swan Stratford, 2 May 2014

The stage was full of action as the audience entered. Arden sat at a desk while his overalled workers packed the novelties imported by his firm into boxes which were then carried aloft by a hoist. The back of the set consisted of a large painting of an English village which was being dusted by someone whom we would later discover was Susan, Alice Arden’s maid.

This anonymous Elizabethan tragedy was played through in 1h 50m without an interval.

After a brief expository conversation between Franklin (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Arden (Ian Redford) about his wife’s infidelity, we met Alice (Sharon Small), the object of his suspicions (1). She was nervously comic and this set tone for the rest of the performance.

The production’s basic problem was that by starting in this comic vein and assiduously maintaining it, the tragic side of the play was neglected so that its conclusion felt extraneous. The mood was kept as jolly as possible for as long as possible for fear of confronting the audience with unpalatable ‘difficult’ drama.

But this clashed with the ending in which Arden is brutally and repeatedly stabbed and the guilty parties, along with one innocent person, are executed.

Characterising Alice as a sitcom-style frustrated housewife did not sit well with her subsequent burning at the stake.

The jokiness of Alice’s explanation of her calling out Mosby’s name in her sleep was on one level patently funny, but served as a pretext to render the entire play as comedy. There was very little indication that this was the “lamentable and true tragedy” of Arden of Faversham.

The characterisation of the other main cast followed this line.

Michael (Ian Bonar), the forlorn lover of Susan (Elspeth Brodie), had been recruited by Alice to kill Arden. But his ominous “I’ll see he shall not live above a week” did not feel like a credible threat.

Alice’s lover Mosby (Keir Charles) was a wide boy in a purple suit. This sub-comical persona positioned him as a figure of fun.

Clarke the painter (Christopher Middleton) was a ridiculous figure whose dull clothes, glasses and red facial disfigurement made him into a laughable misfit rather than a sinister conspirator. His lust for Susan, who was lurking all the while under the table cleaning and overhearing their conversations, was played as ludicrous. Clarke gave Alice and Mosby poison to put in Arden’s breakfast.

Alice’s “See where my husband comes” was funny and was soon followed by the suspicious Arden disarming Mosby by taking, not a sword, but a handgun that was stuffed down the back of his trousers.

Alice brought Arden the poisoned breakfast and she and Mosby sat and watched him eat it out of the corner of their eyes. Arden noticed there was something odd about the food and put it aside. Alice threw the bowl to the ground accusing her husband of suspecting her of poisoning him, a charge she tried to refute by taking a spoon and trying to eat it up herself.

Greene (Tom Padley), one of the tenant’s dispossessed by Arden’s land deal, wore an Adidas tracksuit that identified him as low class. His grudge against Arden made it easy for Alice to get him to procure her husband’s murder.

Mosby criticised Alice’s involvement of too many people in their plans. Susan was produced for Clarke to paw at. Alice’s comment that Clarke had made Susan blush was underlined by the way her cheeks were painted with red blushes making her look almost like a doll. There was also something doll-like about the way she was escorted away, crying uncomfortably.

Greene and Bradshaw the goldsmith (Colin Anthony Brown) met two lowlifes Black Will (Jay Simpson) and Shakebag (Tony Jayawardena) in the street (2). Bradshaw, who was wearing cycling clothes faintly reminiscent of a city commuter, did not want to be associated with Black Will and gestured to Greene that they should continue without stopping to talk to them.

But Black Will helped Bradshaw out by identifying the villain who had sold him the stolen gold plate, which because it had been found in Bradshaw’s possession had led to him being wrongly accused of the theft. Bradshaw’s long description of the villain was cut because of its doublet references.

However, Black Will held back the line to Shakebag about spending the money from the sale of the stolen goods until after Bradshaw had left so that it seemed that he had deceived him. Greene had given Bradshaw a letter to deliver to Alice, which would later be used to prove his complicity in the murder plot.

Greene paid the murderers to kill Arden and they enthusiastically took up the assignment.

Michael, now facing a challenge for Susan’s affections from Greene, read out a pleading letter to her which together with an Arden wind-up novelty was ready to be sealed in a padded envelope to be sent to his love (3).

Arden went into Franklin’s London house and the murderers waited outside. Shakebag produced a large jemmy which had previously been stuffed down back of his trousers. He practised swinging it and accidentally hit Black Will with it. This replaced the original text’s shop window accidentally dropped onto Black Will’s head. Shakebag tried to revive Black Will during which time Arden left the house and passed by them.

Greene and the murderers rounded on Michael and forced him to help them with their plan to murder Arden that night by leaving the house doors unlocked. From this point forth Black Will had a bandage round his head that served as reminder of the previous comic mishap.

Michael’s pangs of conscience, which we had previously seen, now obliged him to change his mind (4). He feared that the murderers would kill him too. His panic woke Arden and Franklin and the doors were found to be unlocked, after which they were secured.

The murderers entered with the stage in a total blackout to find the doors locked (5). The complete darkness was very odd and completely unnecessary. Dim light would have been understood to represent total darkness and the result was simply to create confusion. The sound effect of the door being tried was insufficient. This staging was perhaps made necessary by the set not allowing for the presence of a door, but one could have been set up temporarily.

Arden told Franklin about his dream in which he was captured like a deer (6). The original text’s reference to a “toil” was changed to the more comprehensible “net”. Arden’s description of his dream with its imagery of encroaching danger could have been given greater ominous weight to indicate the darker tone of the end of the play, but it felt like an intrusion into its overall gaiety.

The murderers intercepted Michael and he invented a story to excuse his failure to leave the house unlocked (7). Black Will put his knife to Michael’s ear as if ready to cut it off saying “This shall be your penance” but instead pulled the knife away and, laughing at his own joke, invited him to the Salutation inn.

As if to indicate his ambition to supplant Alice’s husband, Mosby sat at Arden’s desk for his soliloquy (8). This had overtones of Henry IV talking of how poor people sleep soundly and Macbeth’s paranoid desire to kill all his potential foes, but the speech fell flat because the character had not been previously presented to us as someone with that kind of tragic depth.

Bringing out the full comic potential of the initial scenes smothered the first inkling that this play was a tragedy that would end in multiple deaths. The audience was being fed comedy like sugar with the result that it developed a craving for more, to the exclusion of more nourishing dramatic sustenance.

Alice entered reading, not a prayer book to suggest piety, but a gaudily covered Bible: this did not suggest the level of seriousness that the sequence demanded. Alice appeared to have changed her mind about the murder of her husband, and Mosby was angry at this betrayal. When she tore the pages out of the Bible, this and their sudden seriousness looked barely credible.

They kissed and made up just as Bradshaw brought in a letter from Greene informing her of their failure to kill Arden in London. Bradshaw was offered a cup of beer, and he ran off mouthing “a cup of beer” as if really grateful for it.

Rifle

The murderers positioned themselves ready to attack up on the balcony, but fell into a comic fight until Greene intervened to refocus them on the job (9). While Arden talked with Franklin down below, Black Will put together a sniper’s rifle but failed to have it ready in time. Their complete ineptitude was hilariously highlighted by Shakebag consulting the rifle’s instruction leaflet.

Lord Cheiny (Joe Bannister) and his Man (Peter Bray) came running in wearing lycra running gear. The presence of multiple witnesses meant that the would-be murderers had missed their chance again. Their bickering attracted the attention of the men on stage who looked up, prompting the murderers to conceal themselves by standing still like posts or trees.

Lord Cheiny invited Arden to dine with him on Sheppey, which the murderers overheard providing them with their next opportunity for assassination.

Arden set off for Sheppey, allowing Greene to show Alice the poisoned crucifix he had prepared as a device to kill her husband (10). Clarke wore blue latex protective gloves to handle the toxic crucifix and he made Alice put on pair as well when she took it from him.

The stage filled with dense smoke to represent the fog as the Ferryman (Ken Nwosu) escorted Arden and Franklin across to Sheppey (11).

Shakebag and Black Will also became lost in the dense fog (12). After hearing the faint sound of Arden’s party passing by, Shakebag fell into the large open stage trap representing the dank marshy ditch and emerged covered in mud. He was helped out by the Ferryman who informed them that they had once again missed Arden.

Greene, Mosby and Alice discovered that this latest attempt had failed and the murderers vowed to catch Arden on his return. The plot in which Alice and Mosby were to confront Arden arm-in-arm was cut and its setup was therefore cut from the end of the scene.

The character of Dick Reede became in this production a Mrs Reede (Lizzie Hopley), who intercepted Arden to complain of about being evicted from her land (13). She had been previously shown trying to catch his attention, so that her approach here was the successful culmination of her previous strenuous efforts.

The fatal curse/premonition by Reede that the land Arden had taken would “be ruinous and fatal unto thee” was underlined by the back of the set turning dark red to suggest bloodshed and the ominous hand of fate.

But set amid the comedy of the failed murderers, this foreshadowing of the play’s tragic ending felt bolted on, an intrusion of seriousness into the continuing sitcom.

The entire sequence in which Arden discovered Mosby and Alice together and the fight between them, also involving Black Will and Shakebag, was cut. This was possibly to reduce the production’s running time, or perhaps it was felt that the elderly Arden could not take the murderers on in direct combat using modern weapons without killing them. The character of Arden was probably originally conceived as a younger and more vigorous than the man presented here.

The murderers met up with Alice and Michael and a plot was laid to kill Arden that night in the house (14). A dining table was set out.

The reference in the text to “tables” was changed to make it clear they were going to play “cards”. In keeping with the modern setting there was no mention of horses or Arden’s counting house.

Mosby brought Arden back and pretended to have fallen out with Alice with the result that Arden then begged him to stay. They drank champagne and sat down to play cards, while the murderers gathered downstage and watched.

Michael suggested that Black Will should creep between his legs which resulted in Michael sitting astride him and both edged forward to sneak up on Arden. This was inherently ridiculous and showed that even at this late stage, the production was intent of milking every last laugh from the plot.

On the key phrase “Now I can take you” Black Will wrapped a towel around Arden’s head, dragged him downstage and then stabbed him.

After repeated stabbings by the murderers, Alice seized a knife and stabbed Arden too.

This really was the point at which the comedy should have ceased.

Instead of placing the body in the counting house, they put the body in a large cardboard box and used the warehouse winch (no dining room should be without one) to hoist the box up into the air. Susan and Alice tried unsuccessfully to clean the blood from the floor, so rushes were strewn over it.

The dinner guests arrived and were plied with drinks. The asides between Michael and Susan in which he planned to poison Alice were cut.

This was to focus attention on the blood soaking out of the bottom of the cardboard box. This drew excited audience attention as some individuals pointed upwards at it to alert their neighbours.

The conspirators managed to persuade the guests to leave and then brought the box down. As they did this snow began to fall along the edges of the stage so that this zone represented the outside where the body was being deposited while inside represented the house. As the box was lowered, it was tipped on its side and the body dumped on the snow to represent its disposal outside, after which the conspirators moved back inside.

The watch entered the house, prompting Alice to act innocent by asking them if they had brought her husband home, but they had in fact come for Black Will.

Franklin announced that Arden’s body had been found despite the fact that it had just sat at the edge of the stage unseen and undiscovered by anyone else. This was a glaring hole in the staging. Franklin produced the hand towel and knife which would be the main evidence against the conspirators, but these had not lain with the body at any point and their appearance now looked strange.

Franklin pieced together the evidence which pointed towards Alice’s guilt against which she could only offer feeble explanations.

The separate scenes for Shakebag (15) and Black Will (17) were cut so that we then saw Alice’s and Mosby’s confessions (16). The actors picked up chairs and sat on them spread around the stage to rue their fate as isolated individuals rather than as a group conversation (18). A voice announced that Mosby and Susan were to be executed, Alice was to be burnt and Michael along with (the completely innocent) Bradshaw were to be put to death.

The Epilogue was spoken by Alice rather than Franklin. She explained the gruesome fates of those who had initially escaped, setting the final tragic note on proceedings.

Nothing in the previous 105 minutes had suggested this bleak conclusion so that it appeared incongruously tacked on at the end.

Conclusions

The RSC did not know what to do with this not-Shakespeare play. It was scared of putting audiences off with an unfamiliar antiquated work and so tried as far as possible to make it appear modern and ‘relevant’, a process which did not do the play justice. Turned into a semi-sitcom, Arden of Faversham was wrenched completely out of its historical context so that residual faithfulness to the text and story clashed with the production’s tacit desire to do away with them completely.

There is a spectre haunting the Swan Theatre: the spectre of One Man, Two Guvnors.

Titus’s antic disposition

Titus Andronicus, Swan Stratford, 28 June 2013

The RSC was keen to point out that this production was gruesome and blood-stained. So it was slightly underwhelming to enter the Swan and be greeted by the sight of three apparently intact, clean bodies, their faces peeking out from blankets as they lay on hospital trolleys in a dingy hospital. The Roman insignia on the wall clashed anachronistically with the large radio from which a voice burbled indistinctly. Nurses attended to the sick, mopping brows in an atmosphere of serene calm.

Titus (Stephen Boxer) and his son came to visit, the father tenderly examining his other children, kissing their brows before closing their eyes and covering their faces. He stood stiffly by them and gave a clenched fist salute. But despite this martial gesture it was clear that Titus was war-weary. Our first glimpse of Titus showed him as compassionate and tender.

Saturninus (John Hopkins) and Bassianus (Richard Goulding) appeared on the upper gallery overlooking the stage and pitched their claims for the position of emperor. Titus leaned into the radio to listen as if hearing their words as a broadcast.

Saturninus cast a scathing glance at his rival as he spoke of “this indignity” while Bassianus in turn gave a withering look at Saturninus as he said that “dishonour” should not approach the throne.

Marcus Andronicus (Richard Durden) entered on the stage level announcing that the Roman people had chosen Titus, who had been called back to Rome.

There was an air of weakness to Saturninus that would later explain his willingness to be led by Tamora.

Titus pointed at the radio to draw attention to Bassianus’s reference to “gracious Lavinia” to whom “my thoughts are humbled all”.

The two rivals dismissed their followers and cleared the balcony.

The Captain’s role in announcing Titus’s arrival was cut as he was already present. But the focus on Titus as the centre of attention was heralded by major changes to the stage.

The bodies were taken from the trolleys and laid in white shrouds downstage, while the back wall of the hospital opened out to reveal Titus’s captives: Tamora (Katy Stephens) and her three sons were in harnesses restrained by ropes, while behind them Aaron (Kevin Harvey) stood with his tethered arms outstretched, this greater restraint signalling his greater potential threat.

As Titus spoke of the “precious lading” with which he had returned to Rome, he paused, choked with emotion before describing the family tomb as their “latest home”.

Lucius (Matthew Needham) appealed to have one of the Goths killed in retribution and Titus brusquely agreed.

As Alarbus (Nicholas Prasad) was taken, Tamora became wide-eyed with grief and shrieked in impotent terror. She pleaded with Titus to spare Alarbus, but they met kneeling over Titus dead son so that his motive for revenge was immediately before him.

Lucius and the other sons stood with Alarbus on the centre stage lift and descended below the stage, returning moments later with nothing more than a bowl filled with bloody remains into which he dipped his fingers and smeared Alarbus’s blood onto his brothers’ foreheads.

The use of the lift and the military precision of the operation were faintly reminiscent of operations on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

This pitiless slaughter showed that however mournful and compassionate Titus could be, he was still capable of savage retribution.

The shrouded bodies of his dead sons were buried in the family tomb by being hoisted by ropes up into the air.

Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) appeared on the stage right walkway and greeted her father centre stage where they embraced. She was dressed in white, which matched her long blond plaits.

With ceremony complete, Marcus offered Titus a white robe, bidding him to be a candidate for the emperorship.

Titus turned down the offer, his thoughts once again still on his soldiership and his dead sons as he paused before enumerating the “one and twenty” he had buried.

Saturninus entered and knelt along with Bassianus to Titus whom they both expected to become emperor. But Titus gave his support to Saturninus who threw aside his white candidatus robe before he stood to be acclaimed ruler.

The new emperor had difficulty adjusting to his position, faltering before adopting the imperial plural: he paused “the favours done to… us” and the text was changed so that he could also pause before saying “… we give thee thanks”. His uncertainty at this point combined with earlier indications of his weakness to suggest subtly his lack of preparedness and unsuitability to rule.

He chose Lavinia as his wife and immediately seized on her, took her aside and pulled the shoulder of her dress down to perve over her body. Titus put his sword at Saturninus’s feet and handed over the prisoners to him. Saturninus freed Tamora assuring her “princely shall be thy usage”.

As Saturninus made to leave with Lavinia, she shot pleading glances at her fiancé Bassianus, who picked up on her cue and laid claim to her. He was backed up by Lucius, but opposed vehemently by the loyal Titus. Saturninus watched passively and stamped his foot petulantly like a child.

As Lavinia was snatched away, Mutius (Harry McEntire) drew his sword and blocked Titus from pursuing. Enraged at this mutiny, Titus grabbed his son by the head and snapped his neck, his limp body falling to the ground at his feet.

Tamora once again looked on appalled at this Roman barbarity.

Saturninus returned supported by Roman troops and denouncing the treachery of Titus’s family. He sounded as if he was trying to forget the insult just offered to him and his choice of Tamora as replacement bride was almost an impulsive whim, “this my sudden choice”, which he announced in a cautiously defensive manner.

He plucked Tamora from upstage where she was crouching and held her hand aloft like the victor of a fight. She looked shabby and scared, the whole hasty match looking like the pathetic second-best option of the insecure Saturninus. The pair departed together.

After his brother and son had pleaded for Mutius to be buried with the rest of the family, Titus relented and his body was hoisted up to join the others.

Saturninus appeared on the balcony along with Tamora who had been cleaned up and now wore an elegant gown. He denounced Bassianus and his family as traitorous and seemed intent on revenge until Tamora advised him as a new appointee not to act against Titus in case the Romans should turn against him.

Saturninus agreed and everyone cheerily greeted the new peace as Tamora proclaimed that “This day all quarrels die”. There was still a hint of hurt in Saturninus’s voice when he accused Lavinia of leaving him “like a churl”, but all was resolved. Titus even threw his fur stole up to Tamora as a gift, signifying his approval of her position.

But right at the end of the festival of reconciliation, Tamora was held in spotlight to deliver key lines, usually an aside, held over from her previous speech. She glared out at the audience and announced with a demonic evil flourish “I’ll find a day to massacre them all…”

You can take the girl out of Goth-land, but you cannot take Goth-land out of the girl.

Pendant

Tamora threw a heart-shaped pendant down to Aaron who caught it and put it around his neck as he came forward and stood on the centre platform (2.1).

The platform raised him slightly as attendants held up a fine cloak into which he slipped his arms “Away with slavish weeds”. Kevin Harvey managed to convey the roughness of the Moor but also the fine eloquence of his language. He wore Tamora’s heart-shaped pendant that reminded us that although married to the emperor, she was still his “imperial mistress”.

Demetrius (Perry Millward) and Chiron (Jonny Weldon) were two aggressive lads threatening each other with knives in their dispute over who had most right to court Lavinia. Aaron separated them as they almost came to blows and acted like their wise counsellor.

The boys continued to taunt each other with Chiron holding his dagger limply in front of his crotch taunting Demetrius by saying “And with thy weapon nothing dar’st perform”.

Aaron suggested that they snare Lavinia during the hunt arranged for the next day, preferring that they commit a great outrage in secret rather than a social faux pas in public. Aaron gestured as if riding Lavinia, telling the “brave boys” to “take your turns”. Aaron gave Chiron his scimitar, possibly in the hope he would take after him.

Soldiers rushed down the stage, scattering it with black ash to set the scene in the forest for the hunt (2.2). As the ladies and gentlemen prepared for the day’s sport, Demetrius and Chiron ambled through on their BMX bikes looking like potential troublemaking interlopers.

Aaron continued to charm us with his explanation of his “very excellent piece of villainy” as he stashed a bag of gold at the side of the stage, notionally under a tree (2.3). Tamora, now wearing a split leg skirt so that her thigh tattoos were visible in addition to those on her arms, met with him. She had love on her mind, but Aaron fought to resist the temptation she offered. His face showed the strain of the effort that this self-control demanded. But he managed to keep his mind on the business in hand and gave her a letter to look over.

He made a quick exit as Bassianus and Lavinia approached. The couple were haughtily unpleasant to Tamora, accusing her of an unseemly assignation with the “barbarous Moor”.

Chiron and Demetrius appeared downstage to stand behind Tamora as she accused her tormentors of luring her to this spot in order to slander and then murder her. She spoke these lies with self-assured confidence as her sons flew to revenge these injuries by stabbing Bassianus.

Lavinia spat further insults at Tamora, who wanted a knife to kill her too. But her lascivious sons wanted to take her away to deprive her of her chastity as a fitting punishment, “thrash the corn, then after burn the straw”.

As the boys tried to carry her off to enjoy her “nice-preserved honesty”, Lavinia begged Tamora to be killed straight away. When she refused, Lavinia still showed she had some fight in her by butting her forehead against Tamora’s as she denounced her as a “beastly creature”.

As Lavinia was taken away, Tamora stood over Bassianus and the stage went dark. The lights went up again on Martius (Ciarán Owens) in the pit next to Bassianus, who had remained on stage, but the staging now indicated that he was in the pit.

Aaron in one section of the upper gallery said he would “fetch the king to find them here” while Quintus (Joe Bannister) in a neighbouring section of the same gallery called down to Martius, who explained that he had found Bassianus there. Quintus reached forward and the lights went down once more to suggest his fall into the pit.

The stage was cleared and the trap was opened as Saturninus and followers arrived to look down into the pit, now seen from the top.

Tamora expertly pretended not to know who was dead at the bottom of the bit and produced the forged letter given to her by Aaron to prove the guilt of Titus’s two sons. Saturninus ordered a search for the moneybag as further confirmation, which Aaron was happy to provide by retrieving the bag from the spot where he had previously placed it, with as much fake outrage and sincerity as Tamora.

Titus vowed that the emperor would have justice for the murder of his brother, displaying the same disinterested loyalty that had provoked his killing of Mutius.

The next scene began with another chilling use of the stage lift (2.4). Demetrius and Chiron, their clothes, hands and faces dripping with blood, the instruments of their butchery still in their hands, rose out of the stage with Lavinia curled at their feet.

The horror of their brutality was made the worse for their callous references to their actions and their taunting of the helpless Lavinia.

They left her to “her silent walks”. Lavinia lay motionless and alone for what seemed like an age before struggling to raise herself. Her long hair had been cut raggedly short, with the tresses used as bandages to dress the stumps of her wrists. Strands of hair still hung from the ends like tassels. Her clothes were naturally in tatters.

Marcus came across this pitiful sight and the horror was further enhanced as blood flowed from Lavinia’s mouth as she tried to speak, which Marcus reminded us was the result of her tongue being cut out.

A crowd of hooded tribunes crossed over the stage and ignored Titus’s pleas for clemency for his sons (3.1). The condemned sons were dragged up the stage on rough sackcloth and Titus concluded he would be better off talking to the stones, which he knelt to caress.

This conversation with the floor was the first indication of Titus distracted state of mind. But there was a certain method to his madness: the fact that he could be taken for insane yet still be fully lucid, prepared us for his subsequent deception of Tamora, which was achieved using precisely this confusion.

Marcus told his father that he had been banished for trying to rescue his brothers. Titus’s remark that Rome was “but a wilderness of tigers” was soon proved right as Marcus brought in the pitiful Lavinia.

The poetry of Titus’s reaction enhanced the great dignity of his sentiments. Lavinia fainted to the ground when Titus mentioned her condemned brothers. Picking up on this sign, he tried to comfort her, saying that if her brothers were responsible then justice would be done as they were condemned to die anyway. But he soon realised, as Marcus had suggested, that she knew they were innocent.

Aaron appeared downstage carrying a large bucket of hot pitch and told the Andronicus family that the emperor would spare the sons if any them chopped off their hand and sent it back.

Titus immediately and hurriedly offered his hand, approaching Aaron and asking him to help. There was in this request a hint of irony at the ridiculousness of the situation, which reflected the pointless horror of it all.

With Lucius and Marcus also offering, Titus agreed to spare his hand, which prompted the other two to go fetch an axe. He took advantage of their absence to call on Aaron, who took his hacksaw, grabbed Titus’s arm and sawed off the hand centre stage as Titus shrieked. He plunged Titus’s stump into the pitch, allowing the actor’s real hand to be concealed beneath a cover.

Marcus and Lucius returned to be confronted with Titus’s fait accompli. Aaron promised to return his sons, and his devilish aside “Their heads I mean” verged into the comic as the full extent of his villainy was exposed.

Titus kneeled and Lavinia kneeled next to him as both were united in sorrow and mutual pity.

Marcus challenged him over his excessive reaction, but Titus pointed at Lavinia as he spoke of the winds raging and at himself when referring to the sea being wild, expressing how natural it was for disturbance in one to provoke motion in the other, before making the comparison explicit “I am the sea… She is the weeping welkin”.

A strange-looking man (Ben Deery) pushed in a pram laden with what looked like meat in plastic bags. He dumped the two sons’ heads and Titus’s hand on the ground and departed.

Titus laughed at the absurdity of it all, at one point playing with his own severed hand. He lifted each up in turn, saying that “these two heads do seem to speak to me”, and acted as if listening to them, nodding in agreement. He then continued “and threat me I shall never come to bliss till all these mischiefs be returned again even in their throats that have committed them”, as if prompted by the heads’ suggestions.

This was another instance of apparently mad behaviour with a completely lucid purpose that was simply a coping mechanism devised by someone under extreme stress.

He did not go into specifics, but told Lucius to go to the Goths and raise an army. The others left, with Marcus and Titus carrying a head each and Lavinia carrying Titus’s hand in her mouth.

Lucius said he would go to the Goths to raise an army “to be revenged on Rome and Saturnine” and as he spoke the Goths loomed out of the darkness upstage, led by their new queen (Sarah Ridgeway). They hailed Lucius, who stripped off his shirt and braced himself as the Goth queen took a hot iron and branded him with the mark of the Goths, welcoming him into their ranks.

On that searing image the interval came.

Interval

A big square table was set out for the second half (3.2). Lavinia lurked under the table before emerging to sit at breakfast. She had now been cleaned up: her hair had grown back, albeit shorter than before, and her stumps were now bound in leather. She tried clumsily to grasp a spoon to open her boiled egg but failed, eventually smashing the egg and gulping down the contents like an animal.

The rest of the family came in for breakfast, including Young Lucius (George David) who was carrying some books tied up with string. Titus’s hand stump was also encased in brown leather.

The general air of despondency at their losses found expression when Lavinia brushed away her plate scattering its contents, a gesture picked up on by Titus as he said “Thou map of woe, that thus dost talk in signs”.

In a change to the text it was Young Lucius who stabbed at a fly with his knife, claiming that he mistook it for Aaron the Moor. Titus’s slightly sarcastic responses, typified by “How if that fly had a father and mother?”, worked perfectly in this context as warm-hearted admonitions to a child.

Titus took the knife and repeated the assault on the dead insect, yet again playing along and appearing to be soft-headed, while in fact perfectly compos mentis. With hindsight, the transfer of Marcus’s fly tormenting to Young Lucius and Titus’s playful response could be seen as a more effective preparation for the tricking of Tamora than the text’s version.

The action carried on continuously into 4.1. Instead of Lavinia running after Young Lucius in another location, she simply spied the parcel of books and cast them from the table to the ground before pawing at one of them with her stumps. The scene therefore began with Marcus and Titus puzzling over her motives.

She raised her arms in the air one after the other and then pointed out the story of Philomel, from which Titus interpreted that she had been raped by two men. Titus implored her to name her attackers. Marcus dragged Lavinia onto the table top and, grasping a salt shaker between his forearms, demonstrated how to spell out names. Lavinia took the shaker and spelt out Chiron and Demetrius.

With vengeance in the air, Titus placed a saucepan on Young Lucius’s head like a helmet, inviting him to be fitted out in “mine armoury” and told him that he would take a message to Tamora’s sons.

In the scene interval, Tamora appeared on the upper gallery great with child, holding onto the balustrade to steady herself as she walked, overseen by a nurse.

Shadowy figures that had represented the tribunes moved the dining table aside to reveal a bed rising out of the trap on which Demetrius and Chiron cavorted with two girls (Ellie Beaven and Sarah Ridgeway) (4.2). Young Lucius ignored their taunts to present them with a bundle of knives in a cloth holder. The boldness of the boy’s acidic asides to the audience, indicating that Tamora’s sons had been rumbled, was gratifyingly comical.

But while the young men were dimly grateful for the gift, it took Aaron to work out that the message that accompanied it indicated that Titus knew they were the perpetrators.

The Nurse (Badria Timimi) brought in Tamora’s newborn baby. When she asked the lads “did you see Aaron the Moor”, he introduced himself, deliberately playing up the comedy in his “Well, more or less…”

The Nurse’s horror at the mixed-race child, to which she ascribed increasingly lurid terms such as “loathsome as a toad”, culminated in her telling Aaron that Tamora wanted him to kill it.

Aaron switched from resolute defence of the child and by extension his own colour “Zounds, ye whore, is black so base a hue?” to cooing baby language “Sweet blowze, you are a beauteous blossom, sure.” These brief two lines raised Aaron way beyond the standard Machiavel from which his character derived.

Chiron and Demetrius, on the other hand, were incensed. But Aaron once again managed to be sympathetic by getting the better of them using comedy. The sons complained that he had “undone our mother”. His riposte, “Villain, I have done your mother” managed to be an insult to them and an appealing comic interlude for the audience.

Aaron cradled the baby close to him with one hand, while fending off “white-limed” Chiron and Demetrius with his scimitar in the other, an image that combined tender paternal affection and imminent violence to create great tension.

Even as he reasoned with them, he found time to include the baby in his argument, cooing to the baby as he imagined how it would say “Old lad, I am thine own”.

Aaron managed to convince the boys that their brother was worth saving and sat on the bed, the Nurse next to him, asking her how many people knew that the baby was black. Apart from Tamora, only the Nurse and midwife knew.

Aaron leant in towards the Nurse and began to utter a confidence upon which he stabbed her in the stomach. She cried out in agony and collapsed backwards on to the bed. Aaron looked at her and shook his head disapprovingly. He then corrected her by making what he considered an authentic squealing sound and said “so cries a pig prepared to the spit” as he stabbed her again in the behind. He thus undid all the credit he had built up as a caring father.

Even Chiron and Demetrius were appalled at this, but it was possible to detect a certain professional admiration for Aaron’s thoroughness.

Aaron instructed them to take gold to Muly whose wife had given birth to a white child and to explain how their child would be advanced by being swapped with the empress’s. They looked puzzled at this until Aaron clarified that the swap would enable the emperor to “dandle him for his own” at which point the slow brothers grasped his drift. Taking note of their dimness, he then told them to bring the midwife to him, speaking slowly and deliberately as if they were simpletons.

By now Chiron and Demetrius were convinced that Aaron was acting in their mother’s best interests, but with his parting remark, cooing over the baby that he would bring it up “to be a warrior and command a camp”, he made his self-interest plain.

Titus and family approached from upstage carrying crossbows as they prepared to send messages to the emperor (4.3). Titus laid a large chart (presumably of the mythological world) out on the ground, gesturing at it as he issued crazy instructions to dig “to Pluto’s region” to deliver a petition to him. Marcus and Publius (Ben Deery) commented on his apparent madness.

The crossbowmen were given bolts bearing messages and fired them into the air.

When they had finished a blind man (Dwane Walcott) with a brace of pigeons round his neck, his clothes dirtied with pigeon guano, came into view. It was evident from his comical misunderstanding of questions that he was simple-minded. Nevertheless, Titus used this Clown as a messenger to the emperor, hastily writing his “supplication” on the man’s back before giving it to him, as well as a knife to be wrapped in it.

An ornate bath ascended through the trap and after a brief pause Saturninus bobbed up out of the water, compounding the surprise of the bath’s incongruous appearance (4.4). He was scrubbed by female attendants as Tamora wandered about with a visibly white baby on her shoulder. Saturninus delved down into the water and retrieved a handful of bolts of which he queried “what wrongs are these?”

The comic sight of a man in a bath ascending into view was compounded by the implication that all the arrows shot from the crossbows had somehow landed in his bath.

Tamora assuaged her husband’s fears about Titus “blazoning our injustice everywhere” but congratulated herself in an aside that she had touched him “to the quick”. She put the baby down tenderly as she spoke of Aaron making “all safe, the anchor in the port”, the nautical image conveying the safe-keeping she wished for her own child.

When the Clown was shown in, Saturninus stepped out of the bath as his attendants wrapped a towel around him, so that he could read the letter. But all the poor messenger got for his pains was the emperor’s instant order to that he should be hanged. Saturninus had worked out that this was all Titus’s doing.

Saturninus was scared by the news of Lucius approach with the Goth army. He sat at the foot of the bath and was comforted by Tamora, who encouraged him to take heart. She put her arm round him and her supportive caresses evidenced the emperor’s innate weakness.

She nuzzled his head close to her as she promised to “enchant the old Andronicus”. Saturninus raised his head out of her embrace to object that “But he will not entreat his son for us”, to which Tamora responded by comically thrusting his head back down again to continue assuaging him.

The ridiculousness of the bath scene was enhanced by this farcical moment.

Parley

Tamora took further control as she instructed Emillius (Gwilym Lloyd) to request a parley with Lucius at his father Titus’s house.

The scene ended on a sinister note. Up in the gallery the Clown was placed in a noose and hanged, while Tamora turned to the audience and announced that she would visit Titus and try to get him to separate Lucius from the Goths, cackling evilly about “my devices”.

Lucius and the new Goth queen met and agreed to attack Rome as Aaron and his child were brought to them (5.1). The Goth (Ciarán Owens again) who had taken them prisoner described how he had found Aaron describing out loud the full details of his plot in “a ruinous monastery”, and the uptalk intonation on “monastery” perhaps hinted at the anachronistic and geographically incorrect nature of this Reformation reference.

Lucius ordered both to be hanged, the baby first so that Aaron could see it suffer. Aaron tried threats, but soon realised that offering useful intelligence in exchange for the child’s life would be a better ploy.

Aaron admitted to fathering the child with Tamora and revealed Chiron and Demetrius as the ravagers of Lucius’s sister Lavinia. The audacity of admitting his involvement in this crime and that he had framed Lucius’s brothers for the murder of Bassianus, made the sequence very edgy as there was always the possibility of Lucius becoming enraged and taking retribution.

Describing how he had laughed after tricking Titus into cutting off his hand, could only be described as a high-risk strategy. But it paid off as Lucius implied that hanging was too good for him.

Emillius brought Tamora’s message inviting Lucius to a parley at Titus’s house, which he accepted.

Titus appeared on the upper gallery, representing the interior of his house, and sat at a table writing (5.2). Tamora (aka Revenge) and her sons entered on the stage below, wearing wolf pelts draped over their shoulders, their heads shrouded under fanged wolf upper jaws.

They gestured as if throwing stones at Titus’s window and succeeded in attracting his attention. In a nice touch, papers blew from the writing table as Titus mimed opening his window, enacting his fear that they merely practised “a trick to make me ope the door, that so my sad decrees may fly away”.

Tamora tried to lure Titus down, and stood under the window looking back at her sons. She ignored his recognition of her and she continued to insist that she was the mythological figure of Revenge. When she drew attention to her “ministers” they circled and made weird noises in an attempt at eeriness.

Titus requested that she prove she were Revenge by killing her assistants, whom he (and subsequently and falteringly she) named as Rape and Murder.

Hearing this, Chiron and Demetrius looked disconsolately at their mother and began to leave, certain that Titus had recognised them. But Tamora gestured to them to stay as Titus finally decided to descend and meet with them.

He brought with him the drawings of the three of them he had been working on upstairs. Chiron and Demetrius asked Titus what he would have them do. He brandished the drawings and ordered them to kill the people that they resembled, i.e. themselves.

Tamora continued to ignore the clear indications that they had been detected and asked Titus to bring his son Lucius to dine at his house. In return she would bring the emperor, his wife and her sons, and all his enemies for him to be revenged upon.

He agreed, but when Tamora and her sons went to leave, Titus insisted that they stay. Having told us that he was perfectly lucid and knew what he was doing, he bid farewell to Revenge, pecking Tamora repeatedly on the cheek, which reinforced her impression that he was insane.

Titus trap closed around Chiron and Demetrius as his kinsmen entered to confront them, the slowness of their pace signalling the ineluctability of the sons’ fate.

Tamora’s sons were seized and torn out of their ridiculous disguises. They were bound, gagged and hoisted up like sides of meat.

The appearance of Lavinia carrying a bowl between her stumps pointed to the gruesome fate awaiting them. Lavinia’s hair was still neat, but she was wearing the tattered dress in which she had been attacked, a reminder of the grounds for Titus’s impending retribution.

Titus reminded them of their crimes as they struggled vainly against their bonds and gags. He asked them “What would you say if I should let you speak?” which triggered furious wriggling and muffled cries.

He explained how they would be turned into pies for their mother. Their throats were cut and the blood drained into the bowl. The religious reference inherent in “Receive the blood” was brought out in that line’s pronouncement.

After Titus had slit the first son’s throat, the second writhed in panic. Titus shook his head as if translating his wish not to be killed and then changed the shaking into a nod, confirming his resolve to go ahead. This he then did, as the last of Tamora’s sons was drained of his blood.

The spectacle of Titus standing next to the slaughtered bodies merged seamlessly into the final scene (5.3). The bodies were hoisted aloft as Titus turned to face the guests arriving for dinner upstage at a table running down the stage. This involved cutting the first 25 lines of the scene showing the impending arrival of Lucius and the Goths.

Marcus arranged a truce centre stage between Saturninus and Lucius, who drank a conciliatory toast and then moved back to the dinner table.

Titus disappeared for a quick change and reappeared dressed as a serving maid and laid out the dishes in camp flourishes before the astonished company. Two pie dishes were placed next to Saturninus and Tamora who sat opposite each other at the head of the table nearest to the audience.

He asked Saturninus whether Virginius had been right to kill his deflowered daughter. On hearing Saturninus agree, Titus took Lavinia downstage, clasped a cloth over her mouth and  suffocated her in full view of everyone. He cried “Die, die Lavinia…” and then paused while she thrashed around during her protracted suffocation, only continuing “… and thy shame with thee…” once she was limp at his feet.

In the light of Titus’s previous actions, this rash murder raised an important question: if Titus had hitherto only feigned madness, was he now at least insane with rage having killed his beloved daughter? Where was the compassionate man shown at the start of the performance?

He alluded to Lavinia’s ravishment, which Saturninus picked up on and Tamora asked why he had killed her. Titus cheerfully and sardonically told Tamora that it was her sons that her killed her.

Saturninus demanded they be brought forth, allowing Titus comically to point at the pie they had been eating and announce “Why, there they are…”

Tamora looked in disgust at the forkful of pie she held near her mouth and, surprisingly, continued its onward motion. She tasted it, thereby confirming what Titus had said.

She cried in horror as her nascent look of revulsion blossomed into absolute disgust.

Bloodbath

The bloodbath began.

Titus thrust a corkscrew into Tamora’s chest. Despite her wound, Tamora still had the strength to lash out. Blood spurted comically from Tamora’s chest as she reeled from the blow. In revenge for this, Saturninus took a carving knife and thrust it into Titus chest, who then slumped down against the edge of the table facing forward to watch the ensuing chaos.

Lucius stood on the table and thrust a blade into Saturninus’s neck, who ended up eviscerated and slumped in his chair.

Eventually the violence died down as people collapsed from their various injuries. Titus, who had leant against the table all this while, now laughed at the carnage. Yet again, this raised the question of his state of mind. While he had merely pretended to be insane, could laughter at this scene be said to be truly well-adjusted?

Marcus recovered and got up from the body pile, promising to “knit again this scattered corn” of the Roman populace “into one mutual sheaf”.

Lucius stood on the dining table to confirm the allegations against Tamora’s sons. The imperial crown was taken from Saturninus, a slight shove sending him comically crashing off his chair, and ended up on Lucius’s head.

Young Lucius entered the bloody scene cradling Tamora’s child as Marcus explained that Aaron was the father and “chief architect and plotter of these woes”.

Aaron was brought in under guard and Lucius, now proclaimed emperor, sentenced him to be buried up to his neck and left to starve. He arranged decent burials for Titus, Lavinia and Saturninus, but looked contemptuously at “that ravenous tiger” Tamora ordering her to be thrown to the animals.

The stage cleared and the table was moved aside to reveal Aaron’s head peering out of the trap. His speech, held over from earlier, now became the play’s ending. He said that he did not repent what he had done. But admitted that he would repent “If one good deed in all my life I did” as he looked up at his baby being held by Young Lucius, whose preservation would surely count as such a good deed.

Young Lucius stood holding the baby and picked up a cake slice with a slight air of menace at which point the lights went out. The implication was that he was following, either by training or by trauma, in the footsteps of his family. In the context of this ending, it was possible to see the fly stabbing sequence being allocated to him as a way of preparing us to see his angelic face contemplate murderous deeds.

Conclusions

The production was gripping and powerfully presented its key moments of violence. But the early focus on Titus’s quiet contemplation of the effects of violence meant that it also brought out the complexity of his character. In particular, questions arose about Titus’s sanity: like Hamlet he affected an “antic disposition” but his actions were ultimately destructive of others and of himself to an extent that put him beyond the bounds of the rational. The overall effect was to show that this early Shakespeare play had all the texture and beauty of his later works.

The chilling reworking of ending intimated at the cyclical nature of violence as Young Lucius took the first steps down the path trod by his older relatives.