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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Rafe’s Got Talent

The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 1 March 2014

The production announced its comic credentials right at the start by turning the lighting of the playhouse candles into an extensive slapstick routine.

The characters Tim (Dennis Herdman) and George (Dean Nolan) began the performance as stage hands. Tim shouted a cry of command to an unseen backstage colleague to request that a candelabra be lowered; it descended as required and was successfully lit. He then fixed his gaze on another candelabra and shouted once more, but this time a different candelabra behind him was lowered to the floor instead. George discovered this and went to investigate, whereupon the candelabra was raised out of reach. But a short while after, it descended slowly all the way down pinning George to the ground.

Tim turned to speak to George with his back extremely close to a lowered, fully lit candelabra and smoke began to issue from his breeches. After what felt like an age, he eventually whelped with the pain and smothered the incipient fire.

The sconces were also lit by tapers, which involved the stage hands clumsily straddling the balustrades to reach them, with big George sometimes losing his balance and toppling over into the audience.

The Citizen (Phil Daniels), his Wife (Pauline McLynn) and Rafe (Matthew Needham) entered through the pit aisle, dressed like other cast members in period costume (Induction). Wife commented on the decoration of the playhouse and they all took their places on the first row of stage left pit seats . Wife had a programme for The London Merchant consisting of small sheets of paper tied together with string with the play title calligraphied on the cover. She also carried a paper bag containing red grapes.

A sign or “title” was presented announcing the beginning of The London Merchant after which the Prologue (Brendan O’Hea) began to speak.

Citizen stood up and faced towards the rest of the audience as he interrupted, objecting to the staging of yet another play that had “girds at citizens”. He encouraged the rest of the audience to support him, which immediately implicated and involved us in his rebellion against The London Merchant.

The first “joke” came unwittingly when, in a performance taking place about seven weeks after the opening of this new theatre, the Citizen gravely pronounced: “This seven years there hath been plays at this house, I have observed it…”

He looked at the audience, hoping that we would support his request for the company to “present something notably in honour of the commons of the city” and went up onto the stage (rather than already being seated there amongst others, as in the original stage directions). When he proposed that the hero of the story should be a grocer, his Wife stood and suggested: “Let him kill a lion with a pestle” before clambering with some assistance onto the stage via its waist-high front.

Wife suggested that Rafe play the new part and there were cheers for him when he joined them. In a test of his acting abilities, Rafe spoke some lines he remembered from his amateur dramatics, while Wife stood next to him making arm movements that he imitated to add expression to his recitation. Unimpressed by his halting delivery, Jasper (Alex Waldmann) and Luce (Sarah MacRae) of the company shook their heads and walked away in disgust. Citizen offered to pay for all the additional costs of this new production, including the musicians. But he mispronounced shawms as “swarms” creating a malapropism not in the original text.

The text’s reference to the couple sitting on stools was cut as they both eventually went to sit back in their pit seats. This worked to the production’s advantage as in this location they remained firmly rooted in the main body of the audience, which gave added bite to their constant intrusions.

With the new show dubbed The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the prologue was repeated with its musical accompaniment. But at the end the music stopped and the Prologue curtly told Citizen and Wife that they would have to take care of Rafe’s part themselves.

With a modicum of order restored, the play proper began its first scene between the Merchant (John Dougall) and Jasper (Act 1). The initial exposition of Jasper’s thwarted desire to marry the Merchant’s daughter Luce was disrupted by Wife loudly rustling a paper bag, and the actors gave the citizen couple angry looks. In addition to rustling the bag while eating and sharing the grapes with her own party, Wife handed the bag round to those behind her and then crossed the aisle to offer grapes to people on the other side.

Increasingly annoyed and provoked, Jasper directed his line “I cannot STOP IT” with its altered emphasis directed at the citizens.

This distraction continued and affected Luce and Jasper, who cast them angry glances. As if to rub salt on the wound, when Luce made a feeble joke saying that she loved Jasper’s rival for her affection “even as I love an ague or foul weather..”, Wife laughed raucously. Jasper and Luce gave the couple more dirty looks as they exited.

The Merchant appeared with Luce’s suitor Humphrey (Dickon Tyrrell), who wore a light-coloured outfit which, together with his effete manner, suggested that he was unsuited to Luce. As Humphrey made his grand entrance, he coolly but bluntly ordered the others trying to exit to “walk round me”. The audience was at liberty to decide whether this self-importance resided in the character of Humphrey or in the actor playing him.

Wife’s comment about Humphrey “didst thou ever see a prettier child?” kept the text’s reference to the children’s company that originally performed the play. But in this production the remark was taken by Humphrey to be flirting and he waved back. This worked in performance because vain Humphrey seemed to relish the attention.

The sequence between Luce and Humphrey was characterised by delicious overacting and Humphrey’s stilted delivery of deliberately awful rhyming couplets, which made their clunkiness a source of comedy. He paused as he announced that he was pulling “a pair of…” from his pocket, rummaging around near his codpiece before finally producing an innocuous “pair of… gloves”.

Luce convinced Humphrey that he had to steal her away in order to marry her. This led into the joke about Humphrey’s horse being “somewhat blind” and his concluding lascivious remark about Luce being “so trim”.

Citizen and Wife announced that they liked Humphrey, while Wife’s comment about stinking tobacco was cut as the characters, like everyone else in the playhouse, were not smoking.

In his first appearance as an actor, Rafe was accompanied by Tim and George. All three wore blue grocers’ aprons, while Tim carried a broom. Tim was visibly unhappy about being recruited to serve as one of Rafe’s apprentices and was thrust out onto the stage by the much keener George. In addition to chivvying Tim along, George would go on to distinguish himself as the more inventive and accomplished performer of the pair.

Rafe read falteringly from a book, but eventually closed it and spoke very eloquently in his own words about the adventure it contained. This showed his critical intelligence, a spark of wit that the process of performance would kindle.

Rafe compared the chivalry of the story to his coarse contemporary world, in which people would be labelled “son of a whore” and “damned bitch”, addressing those terms to audience members. But he checked that the woman he jokingly insulted was okay afterwards.

The sequence became very moving between 1.248-53 when Rafe asked why anyone would be content to sit in a shop all day when they could go off and have adventures. This positioned him as the classic figure of the ordinary guy who gets lucky.

As Rafe made Tim and George into his followers, there was laughter at big George being labelled “little dwarf”. Beginning with Rafe, they all cast off their blue aprons.

Instead of Rafe saying “my elder prentice Tim…”, he said “my elder prentice?” as if asking for a name, to which the actor replied “Tim”. But when Rafe addressed him directly again, he got the name wrong, addressing him as “Tom”. The actor corrected him and followed his correction with “anon”. This change from the original was necessary because in this staging the “apprentices” were not known to Rafe beforehand.

Tim shrugged off Rafe’s hand as he placed it encouragingly on his shoulder. Rafe went to the side of the stage and knelt, a finger placed quizzically near his mouth, to ask Tim how he would enquire about the intents of an errant knight, adopting the stylised manner of a theatre director calling on an actor to improvise in a rehearsal. Tim had a go, but could only stutter out a few uninspired words. Rafe showed him how to do it properly using the flowing and poetic language of chivalry, while Wife and Citizen castigated Tim’s ineptitude. Rafe had demonstrated that he possessed unusually refined improvisational skills.

On the other hand, George got right into the spirit of things. Literally seizing his opportunity, he snatched Tim’s broom and swung it behind his back in a ninja pose to exclaim “Right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle” and then went into the pit to comfort a “distressed damsel” getting her to put her hand to her forehead to signify her distress.

Jasper entered and pushed Rafe aside, stamping his foot forcefully as The London Merchant cast reasserted their control over the stage. Mistress Merrythought (Hannah McPake) shunned Jasper and gave her blessing to her goody-goody son Michael (Giles Cooper).

Wife and Citizen initially agreed that Jasper was a bad character, but later fell out over him: Mistress Merrythought said that Jasper had run away, but Wife contradicted her, explaining that we had seen his master reject him about half an hour ago on this very spot. Citizen accused Wife of being soft and taking Jasper’s side.

All the Merrythoughts apart from Jasper had red wigs. Merrythought (Paul Rider) wore a green doublet/hose outfit that matched the green garments of the other Merrythoughts.

Merrythought gave Jasper his share of the estate and counted out the measly 10 shillings as a rising scale played on a lute with each coin. Merrythought said farewell to Jasper who made to leave, but was called back by his father’s singing. Jasper paused in the doorway posing with his hands on the doorposts before returning to rub Merrythought’s stomach in a circular motion and give him a tankard of drink in a touching display of filial affection. Dismissed once again, Jasper tried to tell his father something but was cut short.

There was a brief interval during which the Boy (Samuel Hargreaves) danced. There were breaks every 30 minutes at end of each act with a longer privy break of 15 minutes between acts 3 and 4. In many cases there was something to see during the interval as the play provided comic interludes during the act breaks.

Humphrey explained that in order to marry Luce, he had to carry her away (Act 2). The candelabras were hoisted up, but at uneven heights with the highest upstage, to represent the gloom of Waltham Forest.

The initial exchanges in the scene between Citizen and Wife were spoken very loudly and over the top of the actors playing the Merchant and Humphrey rather than slotted between them. The actors once again grew extremely irritated with their bad behaviour: the Merchant directed “tell me WHY” at them and shouted the phrase “not here” as a complaint that their jabbering meant that the audience could “NOT HEAR”. Humphrey turned his aside “Help me, oh Muses nine” into a desperate plea for them to stop. Finally the Merchant descended into the pit and snatched the bag of grapes from the couple. At the end of the sequence, Humphrey cried out “My best speech: ruined!” as he exited.

Mistress Merrythought and Michael found themselves in the forest with her jewel casket. They sat as she showed the contents of the box to Michael, leaving a necklace protruding when she closed the lid and put it down.

Perilous

Citizen and Wife called for Rafe to appear. He made his entrance wearing a hobby horse, together with Tim and George. The thunder board was used to strike a chilling note when George said they were in the “perilous Waltham Down”. The trio scared away Mistress Merrythought and Michael, who fled abandoning their jewel casket downstage centre.

Tim was carrying a large backpack containing all the luggage. The sequence contained a running gag in which Rafe repeatedly brandished his sword so close to Tim that he lost his balance and fell backwards.

George praised Rafe again as the “Mirror of knighthood…” Rafe took off his hobby horse and knelt downstage to vow service to the distressed people who had just fled. As he referred to his ancestor Amadis de Gaul and his sword Brionella, George sang an accompaniment echoing those phrases, and picked up on his lines rephrasing them into a theme song about how Rafe would never end “the quest of this fair lady and this forsaken squire, till by his valour he gains their liberty”. Towards the end of the song he shouted at a volume that made Rafe recoil.

Utilising a specifically non-Jacobean special effect, George opened a casket containing the emblematic burning pestle, which glowed brightly within.

The unfortunate Jasper spoke of his despair, accompanying his speech with clumsy miming of its visual imagery: he indicated a circle to illustrate Fortune’s “desperate wheel”, as well as hand gestures for “climb” and “stand”. He pretended not to see the casket but then stared at it, mulling how as an actor to “discover” it. Jasper ended up sitting on the casket in a very unconvincing but very funny spoof of stage convention. Bashing his hand down onto the box on each syllable, he despaired that he was “only rich in misery”.

Jasper threw the 10 shillings pittance his father had given him into the pit. Turning to go, he accidentally-on-purpose kicked the casket, which allowed him to officially discover it. With an expression of mock surprise, he exclaimed: “How, illusion!” The pearls that he referred to were already draped over the edge having been left like that by Mistress Merrythought.

Rafe entered through the Pit on a Morris hobby horse together with his party. Mistress Merrythought explained the loss of their jewel casket. Rafe corrected her use of “forest” to “desert”, expressing a tinge of disappointment that the actress was not getting into the mood of the play he was intent on creating.

When Rafe referred to “the beauty of that face” Mistress Merrythought became visibly taken with him, adjusting her hair coquettishly. She stroked his hobby horse’s head turning “more like a giant than a mortal man” into a suggestive joke. Rafe promised to help and offered a lath sword to Michael, making him a knight.

The candelabras were hoisted up and the shutters were opened to create a safe environment for the big fight scene.

Would-be eloper Humphrey tried to carry Luce, but was not strong enough and had to put her down saying “or, if it please you, walk…” to comic effect.

Jasper entered and fought with his rival Humphrey, kicking him down into the pit. Wife predictably took Humphrey’s side, clutching his head into her bosom enabling her to see the “peppernel in’s head”. During this exchange, Citizen varied his pronunciation so that he said “You’re too bitter, cunny” not “cony” as he pronounced the word on all other occasions.

Citizen asserted himself and demanded that Rafe fight with Jasper. The Boy protested that it would spoil their play, but Citizen threatened to “make your house too hot for you else”.

Rafe, his crew and the Merrythoughts discovered Humphrey and huddled together in fright as they pointed their swords at him with paranoid suspicion. But after Humphrey had complained to Rafe about Jasper stealing his wife, it was the newly arrived Jasper who found himself under attack. Tim confronted Jasper, but he just jabbed his finger at Tim and sent him flying backwards, knocking Rafe and George over.

A big fight ensued between Jasper and Rafe. Jasper bashed Rafe’s head against the frons scenae after which the scrapping pair climbed over the balustrade and out through the stage left Lords Box. They raced round the back of the middle gallery where Jasper beat Rafe’s head against a window and kicked Rafe on the ground, with Rafe retaliating by poking Jasper in the eye. The chase proceeded further, accompanied by the sound of clanking metal as something was knocked over, and some auditorium doorway curtains were ruffled. After a lengthy pause, at the end of which Rafe was summoned, they rushed back in again via the opposite Lords Box.

The fight continued onstage. Tim and George were sent sprawling and hit the Lords Box woodwork, but then recovered and rolled forward at Jasper who repulsed them. George grabbed the magic pestle from its box, but was disarmed by Jasper, who used it to hit Rafe repeatedly over the head. He triumphantly dismissed Rafe mocking his London accent when pronouncing “Golden Pestle” before departing with Luce.

Mistress Merrythought said she was tired, Michael said he was hungry. Demoralised Rafe did not know how to respond until the box was opened to show the glowing pestle within. The sight of this rallied Rafe, who said he would bring the Merrythoughts to the safety of a castle.

There was an excellent set piece joke with Wife explaining how Rafe had comforted her about her missing child by saying “I’ll get you another as good”.

George broke into song to inform Rafe and the others about the hospitality on offer from Tapstero and Chamberlino, dancing and singing that there was “plenty of food”, highkicking at “stretched his buttered hams”. Rafe asked Tim to knock at the gates “with stately lance” which George repeated in song, continuing in his comic choral function. Brendan O’Hea’s Host (his character merged with the Tapster) appeared with a knife under his belt and wearing an ominous eye patch as he leant against the doorway offering hospitality. As he turned to follow them inside, the knife he was holding sinisterly behind his back came into view.

After listening to Humphrey’s terrible clasp her/Jasper end rhymes, the Merchant instructed him to intercept the runaways, before setting off to meet Jasper’s father.

Merrythought explained his philosophy of life with a thought-provoking anecdote about a glum man he had once seen who shortly after had been executed and his head displayed on London Bridge. He sang and dance accompanied by the Boy, as both of them mimed riding horses, feeding them and then dismounting.

The old man was unconcerned that his son had run off with the Merchant’s daughter. Had both his sons been condemned to hang, he would have simply cried “Down, down, down they fall”. He crouched to emphasise this, encouraging the Merchant to do the same. For this slight, the Merchant vowed to kill Jasper.

Another act interval came which replaced the text’s excellent “Rafe and Lucrece” joke with something completely different. The Citizen got the band to play the Globe standard “Cuckolds all a row” instead of “Lachrimae”. Leaves were showered down onto the Boy, who singled out Wife and turned the song lyrics into a derogatory comment about her. The stage crew also took their revenge on Citizen by sweeping the leaves on the stage into a neat pile and then brusquely brushing them onto him in the pit.

Reunited at last, Jasper and Luce had some together time (Act 3). But for some reason Jasper (or rather the actor playing him) detected that Luce (or rather the actress playing her) was overly amorous towards him. Jasper rolled his eyes as she tried to embrace him. He resolved the problem by clasping her so close that her head was forced over his shoulder so that she could not kiss him.

They sang a corny song “What is love” with equally corny movements, facing the audience cheek to cheek as they intoned about love’s “arrow”.

Luce fell asleep improbably fast. Jasper laid her down and ran his fingers clumsily over her face and down onto her chest. In a fine display of bad acting, Jasper pondered the nature of their love and put his foot up clumsily on a ledge in the frons scenae. He decided to test the genuineness of her affection by draw his blade on her in feigned contempt.

Wife completely overreacted as if the threat to Luce were real. She shrieked loudly, calling for the watch. Jasper was irritated by the disturbance and pointed his dagger at her, which shut her up. She withdrew to the aisle and hid her face against the side of the seating block until the sequence was over.

Jasper and Luce were seized on by the Merchant, Humphrey and masked men with torches made of bundled candles. Jasper crawled back onstage and was left behind to rue Luce’s capture. He forgot his lines and the yellow prompt book was thrown onstage from inside the tiring house. After consulting it, he continued at “Oh, me unhappy”. On exiting at the end of the sequence, he patted his hands together in a comically self-important attempt at prompting the audience to applaud him.

Having asked “Is ’a gone, George”, Wife realised it was safe to look up. Citizen hugged and comforted his wife after her shock in a touching moment that humanised them and made them more than simply comic devices.

Rafe and company emerged from the tiring house and the Host sat on a stool sharpening the edge of his sword, evilly running his finger along the keen blade, reminding Rafe that he had to pay the bill. Rafe used elegant chivalric language to try to get a freebie. When the Host threatened to “cap” Rafe, Citizen rushed up on to the stage to protect him and then paid the 12 shillings. The Host was very surprised to receive actual money and perhaps the actor playing him realised that here was an opportunity to cash in.

Wife proudly emphasised that “Rafe has friends…” On hearing that Michael had chilblains, she got up on stage to dispense advice, with incredibly funny insouciance that this was merely the world of the play.

Mistress Merrythought said goodbye to Rafe by snatching a kiss from him, while Michael handed back the sword he had been given.

Rafe asked if there were any further adventures. The Tapster pushed up his eye patch and sent message to the Nick the barber, before launching into an extended description of the monstrous Barbarossa. He sat Rafe on his stool which represented Barbarossa’s “enchanted chair” and mimed combing Rafe’s hair and applying soap to his face, finally holding Rafe’s shield like a mirror to show him the back of his head. Rafe had his own comic moment as he tried to rhyme “soul” with “foul” as the text required.

Mistress Merrythought came on but Citizen told her to go off as she was interrupting the new plot. The Boy complained that they were spoiling the company’s play. A dispute arose over the plot with the Boy attempting to get us to support him by saying “I pray, gentlemen, rule him”. Wife called the Boy back and kissed him long and hard before complaining that he might possibly have worms.

Bellows

As the brave knight approached Barbarossa’s lair, the candelabras were flown up and the thunder board rumbled. Tim puffed smoke in Rafe’s face from his special effect bellows. Rafe grew tired of the smoke and eventually pointed the bellows nozzle aside.

A gong was struck and the battle with Barbarossa began. Brendan O’Hea appeared on stilts wearing a long bloodied smock in a barber’s pole pattern, each hand festooned with cutting implements like an open Swiss penknife. Barbarossa roared and lashed out at Rafe with his bladed hands. Rafe fought back bravely, but Barbarossa snapped off a plank from the tiring house and hit him over the head. The Boy was kicked down into the pit in revenge for previous torments. Tim was flown down on a modern harness and tried to join in. Rafe eventually triumphed by cutting into the monster’s side with his sword, which he then raised in victory only to poke it into Tim. The Barber pleaded for mercy and Rafe poised on the brink of finishing him off, jabbing his sword down towards him several times, before finally showing mercy.

The long sequence in which Barbarossa’s prisoners are released was cut, the comedy deriving instead from Tim calling to be lowered from the ceiling over Citizen and Wife’s dialogue. The defeated Barber was asked to swear on the burning pestle never to do wrong again, but had to be restrained from kissing it.

An interval came at this point, earlier than in the text, a proper “privy break” of 15 minutes. A sign announcing this was handed to Tim who was then hoisted up with it into the heavens. The Boy danced all the while as entertainment.

When the play restarted, Mistress Merrythought returned and this time was allowed to proceed with her scene. She and Michael were back home where they found Merrythought still living it up. He appeared among the audience in the upper gallery and then in the musicians gallery before descending to the stage, accompanied by clone Merrythoughts in long johns, red hair and Green Man-style head adornments.

Wife became annoyed at Merrythought and went up on stage to dress him down. But he ignored this admonition and continued to sing and dance. As he sang “kissed me under the breach” Wife’s face was comically thrust into his backside. Wife returned to her seat and sent Citizen to get some drinks.

Mistress Merrythought’s displeasure at her husband culminated in her swearing “Now a churl’s fart in your teeth”, after which she immediately looked surprised at her own temper. She planned to get Michael a position with the Venturewells. Citizen arrived back with drinks on a tray, including glasses of coloured water for those behind the couple in the pit, a sequence that is placed during the text’s act interval.

Jasper dispatched a letter in connection with his coffin ruse (Act 4). He accompanied his parting soliloquy with some inept mimes, acting out standing fixed, a rolling stone and throwing out an anchor, concluding by thrusting his fist downwards at “men celestial” like a boy band singer.

Citizens asked what Rafe should do next. Wife launched into an extravagant description of the romantic Crakovia scene in which she envisaged Rafe wooing a princess, but ending with the anticlimactic “and then let Rafe… talk with her”. The Boy pointed out that this would be impossible both practically and financially. When the Boy said that it would be unfitting for a king’s daughter to marry a grocer’s apprentice, Citizen looked insulted and the audience audibly anticipated his outraged reaction.

The scene was enacted with its exoticism suggested by having George cool Rafe with a large ostrich feather fan, while Tim appeared up in the musicians gallery dressed as Lady, speaking in a cracked voice. He was under a veil at first, then threw it off to display his bearded face. Each time the Lady asked him a question, Rafe turned to the audience as he answered, which enhanced the heroic posturing of his chivalric replies.

When Rafe saw that ‘she’ was a man, he tried to back out, comically inventing a complaint that she was an adherent of “false traditions”. He also mentioned his true love Susan, which was highly affecting, and gave depth to his character. The cross-dressed Tim got too much into his role and wailed when Rafe passed him over for Susan.

The parting gifts of money were turned into an extensive comic sequence by having Rafe climb half-way up the frons scenae to hand over his small individual donations for services rendered. Tim in turn strained as he leant over the gallery balustrade and reached down to take them. Tim also had some funny extra-textual lines commenting on Rafe’s gifts: “Wish he’d anoint my back”, “It was good butter” and responding to Rafe’s “There’s an English groat” with “Oh, how exotic” and then “last one now” as the sequence drew to a close.

The captured Luce was brought in, held firmly by the neck by the Merchant’s henchman, before being handed over to Humphrey. Mistress Merrythought asked the Merchant to employ her son Michael, but he replied with a fiendishly melodramatic staccato denunciation of the wrongs their family had done him. The letter and coffin procured by Jasper were brought in, together with the tragic announcement that Jasper was dead and contained within.

The playhouse shutters were closed and the candelabras hoisted up, as Luce was left alone with the coffin, lighting herself with a handheld. The actress behind Luce changed her acting style so that it became a very convincing portrayal of her character’s grief, free of her previous hamminess. The mood changed completely to underline the gravity of the moment. Even her lament was sung seriously, which contrasted with the cheesy song she had sung with Jasper.

The sombre and serious mood created by the lengthy sequence in which Luce mourned her dead lover was suddenly and comprehensively trashed when Jasper reared up from the coffin. Having made his surprise entrance, he jumped with both feet clear out of the coffin so that they could kiss properly. Jasper’s hand wandered down to Luce’s bottom, at which point Citizen shouted an admonishing “Oi!” This satisfying kiss reconciled them after she had falsely believed that Jasper had wanted to harm her, and marked movement forward in their story, which afforded dramatic momentum to the underlying play.

To facilitate her escape, Luce hid in the coffin and Merchant had it sent to Merrythought, thinking it still contained Jasper Merrythought. Merrythought appeared and sang paying no heed to the fate of his family. Because he was now at home he wore dirty long johns. The following act interlude was run on continuously from the end of the act.

Wife asked Rafe to dance Morris and he emerged in Morris gear to give a rousing speech about the spirit of London youth. At “Lords and Ladies… disport and play, do kiss…” he encouraged a couple in a Lords Box to kiss, which they did producing a heartfelt ‘ah’ moment. When the selected couple did not comply (as happened on 12 March), Rafe commented “Do kiss… sometimes… upon the grass” working with the text to adapt to that behaviour.

A xylophone playing slow, magical notes, accompanied him from the phrase “And be like them”. As he continued, the rest of the main company began to appear at the tiring house side doors, with Luce popping up on the musicians balcony, all admiring Rafe’s fine emotive performance. This was an indication that the main company were beginning to appreciate his talent. This turning point was necessary because it paved the way for the final scene in which the company were appreciative of the adventure Rafe had experienced, rather than continuing to resent him as an upstart intruder. There followed a short four-minute interval.

Act 5 began with the Boy displaying a specific title “The wedding”. A small dinner table was placed onstage. The Merchant’s preparations for the wedding of Luce and Humphrey were interrupted when the thunder board sounded and the candelabras jiggled up and down as if haunted, all presaging the appearance of Jasper, his face painted white like a ghost. Carrying a handheld candelabra for extra impact, he jumped up onto the dining table in a direct parody of Banquo’s haunting of Macbeth. Jasper intermittently kicked plates and tableware to the ground to punctuate his fearful ghostly embassage: Jasper was indeed dead, Luce had now been spirited away and the Merchant’s only hope was to atone by chasing Humphrey away. Jasper danced with joy at the success of his ruse when the Merchant was not looking and then snapped back into ghost mode with the requisite grimace and gesture when the Merchant turned back again.

Humphrey complained that Luce had gone and, obedient to instructions, the Merchant beat him in the hope of appeasing the ghost. Jasper watched this smugly from the musicians gallery and put out his candles before leaving.

Wife called out to Rafe and instructed him to enact soldiers drilling at Mile End, with gleeful emphasis on the words “kill, kill, kill”. Rafe and his men duly emerged with a St George’s flag and Henry V.

The soldiers marched up and down to the beat of the drum. Rafe instructed a pikeman to charge at him, but the pike simply butted up against Rafe and the pikeman’s hands ran down it without causing any injury. The ribald joke about the stinking hole in Greengoose’s musket fell flat. Rafe said that Greengoose deserved to die for his neglect and the pikeman came forward to offer to do the job but his services were rejected. Rafe’s rousing Henry V-style speech ended with cries of “St George!” Citizen was very impressed with Rafe’s martial prowess.

The coffin was brought to Merrythought and when Jasper sneaked up on him via a side door, he fell against the balustrade in surprise. He half-sang “and where is your true love?” at which Luce was helped out of the coffin. This was followed by a comical new line “and there is your true love”. Jasper rubbed his father’s stomach in reconciliation, requesting that his mother be admitted to the house. Mistress Merrythought and Michael were required to sing a song to be let in, and did so omitting the last few offensive lines.

The Merchant also gained access with a song. Mistress Merrythought and Michael, playing along with the ruse, engaged in mock mourning at Jasper’s supposed death. When he turned away from them, the pair fetched Jasper and Luce. The daughter was introduced to the Merchant first to surprise him.

The Merchant begged forgiveness from Merrythought and was in turn asked to forgive Jasper. He clapped Jasper and Luce’s hands together as they kissed under a shower of confetti, with the Merchant’s “I do, I do” becoming yet another suggestion of a wedding ceremony.

Wife demanded dramatic closure for Rafe in the form of his death. He complied by emerging with a forked arrow through his head. But this comic touch was underscored by a very serious, poignant account of his adventure, punctuated by him pointing at individuals behind him on stage who had played a part in his epic journey.

Rafe fell to the ground at “And now I faint”, but got up again immediately in a spoof of that common theatrical trope. He continued speaking until he fell again at “Farewell…” before rising once more. But at “My pain increaseth” he became seriously ill, leading into a very realistic non-comic death, so that even the apparently comical “fly, fly, my soul, to Grocers’ Hall” became poetic.

He lay dead with open, staring eyes. At this point he was clapped by both Jasper and Luce, who had been the first to walk off during his first recitation on stage at the beginning of the performance. Having gained their approval, his journey from clumsy amateur to consummate professional was now complete. Jasper even helped Rafe to his feet, sealing the bond of respect.

The whole onstage cast grouped together for the final song, rounded off with “Heaven bless the knight” sung by George who was then knighted with the burning pestle by Rafe in recognition of his services. The pestle was left on the stage front as the main cast departed leaving Wife to speak the Epilogue. She invited and received audience applause, after which the entire company gathered on stage for the final curtain calls.

Conclusions

This production proved that, far from being the gloomy preserve of blood-soaked tragedy, the Playhouse can serve as an ideal venue for comedy.

The surprisingly high levels of shared light in the intimate space meant that Citizen and Wife could maintain a close rapport with the audience in a way that would not be possible in a huge barn like the RST or Olivier.

Put another way: we have seen the past and it works.

Putting Rafe’s journey at the heart of the production meant that it provided both anarchic comedy and also a heart-warming story.

The success of the production’s initial run has led to it being scheduled for a revival as the Globe’s 2014/15 Christmas pantomime.

The favourable reception that the play enjoyed makes the infrequency of the play’s performance appear puzzling. Perhaps it just requires the right space.

 

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.