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”.

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.

Titus Andronicus – Globe to Globe

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.