Titus Andronicus, The Globe, 3 May 2012
Twelve black chairs arced around the edge of the Globe stage, each tipped forward behind a neat pile of clothes.
This stark sight greeted the early arrivers for the Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio’s Cantonese production of Shakespeare’s early gore-fest.
About ten minutes before the start of the performance the cast entered briskly in their street clothes through the yard, crossed the stage and disappeared into the tiring house.
Just before curtain up, they appeared once again in long johns, turned their chairs the right way up and sat on them with their eyes closed.
Severe of aspect and with spray-on grey hair, Titus was positioned in the centre of the arc of chairs in white, his family to his right in grey, Bassanius and Saturninus either side of him in white, while Aaron and the Goths occupied stage left in black.
The audience hushed awaiting the start of the performance. Several minutes passed in silence as the cast continued to sit motionless, their eyelids firmly shut, with none of the spectators daring to ripple the smooth surface of the stillness.
A horn sounded from the balcony and the cast opened their eyes. They proceeded to perform the entire first act, covering the return of the victorious Titus, his ceding of power to Saturninus, the new emperor’s claim on Lavinia, Titus killing his son Mutius, and Saturninus taking Tamora for his wife.
Each actor played their part either sat or stood around their chair looking directly out at the audience. Running was indicated by stamping of the feet on the spot.
It was a remarkable sight, and for a while offered the tantalising prospect of the entire play being acted out in this highly original fashion.
But at the end of the first act, everything changed. The cast put on the costumes set out in front of them. While most of them disappeared backstage taking the chairs with them, Aaron, Demetrius and Chiron remained to begin act two.
They circled each other with daggers drawn, the motion creating a vivid contrast with the static first act, making the atmosphere of incipient violence all the more shocking. Chiron looked considerably younger and disarmingly innocent compared with his brother. The sides of Demetrius’ head were shaved, which together with his grungy costume made him look like a goth as well as a Goth.
After an unconventional start, the performance continued in a surprisingly conventional manner.
Bassanius and later Titus’s sons Martius and Quintus ended up down the trap door representing the pit.
Act three saw a dramatic series of events culminating in an elaborate set piece.
Titus’ sons, falsely accused of the murder of Bassanius, were led as prisoners through the yard. Titus collapsed on the yard floor begging for mercy. Very rarely do groundlings have to look at their feet to see an actor perform.
The sight of the ravished Lavinia, red gloves and paint marking her mutilation, cut Titus to the quick. Tricked by Aaron, he severed his own hand in the hope it would ransom his sons. The resulting stump was also represented by a red glove.
In a neatly staged and very expressive sequence, Titus collapsed and lay face down next to the bloody bags in which the severed heads of his executed sons had just been delivered.
Marcus stood some distance away, stretching out his hand to gesture at the accumulation of atrocity. Lucius crouched close by offering support, while Lavinia shuffled on her knees towards Titus, uttering indistinct sounds. As the stage cleared, it was pitiful to see her carrying away her father’s hand in her mouth.
But after that very satisfying scene, the production reverted back to the ordinary.
Titus’ family had bows at the ready to shoot messages to the emperor, but the sheets of paper were instead scattered angrily by Titus into the yard.
Following the stage directions, a ladder was used for the threatened killing of Aaron’s child, upon which the Moor confessed his crimes to save the baby’s life.
Tamora always looked distinctive in her slick, black hair and matching black nail varnish. But she appeared even more striking when disguised as the figure of Revenge with red flashes painted on her face, accompanied by her sons in similar get-up.
The final scene was set around a large dining table. Titus was quite jovial in his apron. But his sudden stabbing of docile Lavinia began a violent uproar that ended with him and Saturninus dead too.
Ignoring initial audience applause the cast approached the edge of the stage and stood in silence much as they had done at the start of the performance. It was only after they had opened their eyes and waked from that condition that the curtain calls got underway.
The real mystery of this production is why it began so minimally and then switched into a more conventional staging. Intriguingly, the video of this production on the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive shows the cast dressed in black throughout, making extensive use of chairs to create something more radical than the version presented to us at the Globe.