Titus Andronicus – May 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Fentiman

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th May 2013

Our experience of Titus Andronicus is limited: the Deborah Warner production in 1988 with Brian Cox – excellent – the 2003 RSC production with David Bradley – good but wordy – and the Complete Works Ninagawa production in 2006 – spectacular but not to my taste. Despite this relatively brief acquaintance with the play, we were looking forward to an evening of gore and misery and we weren’t disappointed. Being the first performance there were naturally a few hiccups, but even so the production already feels like a major success, and we can only hope that the faint-ometer doesn’t break through overuse.

The opening set was a church interior. An area of geometric tiles on the floor was echoed in tiling to about shoulder height on the pillars on either side of the balcony. Leaded arched windows stood behind the middle balcony, and there were curtains on either side and underneath, cutting off the rear of the stage. The musicians were perched amongst the gods as usual. The colour scheme was grey and blue. Three medical trolleys stood in front of the curtain, each with a dead body being tended by a nun. I didn’t spot it at first but there was a radio on the front trolley, and that was the source of the music we could hear. A metal and canvas chair was just in front of the trollies, and when the performance started, one of the nuns came and sat on the chair to smoke a cigarette. When Titus and one of his sons came on, it was clear that the costumes were modern but using ancient Roman designs, which worked very well.

Titus gestured the nun away so that he and his son could have some private time with the bodies. The program on the radio changed, and after some music there was talking. Titus nicked one of the nun’s cigarettes and also sat on the chair to listen to the broadcast while his son stood nearby. Saturninus, the late emperor’s son, appeared on the balcony to make his appeal to the people of Rome for his succession to the crown. His speech was also being broadcast on the radio and I thought the sound balance wasn’t quite right to begin with, but maybe that was what they intended. Saturninus was clearly a villain; not only did he have a suspiciously fascist-looking armband and black uniform, but John Hopkins made no attempt to conceal the darkness lurking remarkably close to the surface of this individual.

Bassianus joined his brother on the balcony, also wearing an armband, and made his own speech to raise support. Then Marcus Andronicus, Titus’ brother (lots of brothers in this play), appeared and declared that the people wanted Titus to be Emperor, or a candidate for Emperor, I wasn’t quite sure which.  There were some rabble noises which didn’t help with the clarity of the dialogue at times. However, with reluctance, both Saturninus and Bassianus agreed to wait for the people’s vote (call 0845 833941 for Saturninus…).

More of Titus’ sons arrived in the church and the funeral rites were carried out much more simply than the text suggests; they didn’t have a chariot for one thing. The curtains behind the trollies were whisked away and revealed that the tiling on the pillars continued right round the back of the stage, with brickwork above. Titus and his one son had finished wrapping up the bodies earlier by covering their heads, so now the sheet-wrapped bundles were lifted off the trollies and placed on the ground, while the trollies themselves were removed altogether. As he spoke his lines, Titus had been accumulating dust or sand in one hand, and placed some of the powder on each body. It was at this point that his sons demanded a sacrifice to assuage their brothers’ spirits.

I didn’t see Tamora and her sons at first, so I don’t know when they were brought on, but now I spotted them huddled at the back of the stage, dirty and in chains. Behind them stood Aaron, with his arms out to either side, also chained. Titus gave his sons Tamora’s eldest son for their sacrifice; they brought him to the centre of the stage where they sank down through the trapdoor to the lower depths to carry out the ritual. When they returned with the poor chap’s entrails in a bowl, the slain Andronici could finally be placed in their tomb. To do this, the bundles were attached to hooks and lifted up to hang vertically over the stage while Titus said his prayer. I wondered at this point if there would be an accumulation of hanging bodies during the play, but they were cleared away very quickly.

Lavinia entered by the left walkway, and stooped to cup some water three times out of a basin left there for the purpose. Dressed in simple white, she was young, blond and beautiful and the apple of Titus’ eye, judging by the way he hugged her. Marcus also arrived and gave Titus a white cloth to show that he was a candidate for the Emperor-ship (that cleared that point up) but Titus wasn’t having any of it. Saturninus came on via the right walkway and was determined to get the throne. Bassianus entered by the left walkway and also did the water thing before asking Titus for his support. The tribunes on the balcony reckoned that the people would agree with whomever Titus chose, and with just a few moments’ thought, Titus chose Saturninus, probably one of the worst mistakes he would ever make. Saturninus’ satisfied grin when he was named made it clear he wasn’t a good choice, and presumably Titus opted for him because he was the elder of the two brothers. There was a little hesitation on “whose virtues will, I hope”, suggesting that Titus wasn’t completely stupid, but it was too late.

After some rather weak thanks to Titus, Saturninus got his reign off to a really bad start by claiming Lavinia as his bride. It was already clear that she and Bassianus were an item, so apart from consolidating his position politically through marriage to the respected Andronici, I suspected that Saturninus chose Lavinia to deliberately piss off his brother. He succeeded, at least for a short while. Titus, of course, was delighted with the match, and his response to Saturninus’ proposal showed that Titus was a true Roman nobleman, always putting the good of the city ahead of all other considerations, such as the happiness of his daughter.

At this time he introduced Saturninus to Tamora, or rather gave the prisoners to the Emperor. Saturninus looked, and liked what he saw, and within minutes he freed Tamora. her two remaining sons and Aaron. With the Emperor briefly away, Bassianus seized his opportunity and, with the help of some of her brothers, he and Lavinia scooted off to get married before Saturninus could object. Titus was livid! Such behaviour would dishonour his family, so he had no hesitation in killing the one son who stayed behind to prevent him following the couple. It was a quick kill – he broke his neck – and Titus showed no remorse afterwards.

Saturninus and Tamora reappeared on the balcony, along with the lads. Saturninus wasn’t all that bothered by Lavinia’s elopement as he preferred Tamora, and his offer of marriage was well received by the ex-Queen of the Goths. Titus was unhappy at being rebuffed by Saturninus; although the dialogue wasn’t entirely clear for this bit, I got the gist. Titus’ sons came back on and insisted on giving the newly dead brother a proper burial, so he was hoisted up as well – great care was taken to make sure he was well attached.

All of this was part of Act 1, scene 1, and the Act wasn’t over yet. There remained the final confrontation between Bassianus and his brother, along with every other living person we’d already seen (apart from the nuns). Tamora managed to placate Saturninus and persuaded him to forgive his troublesome subjects, which he did, and with everyone apparently reconciled Titus was again naively convinced that all would be well. When he first arrived on stage he had a wolf pelt draped over his shoulders; by this time he had taken it off and was running it through his hands while he complained about the disgraceful actions of his own flesh and blood – even his brother Marcus had joined in the mini-rebellion! With Tamora seeming to be a good Roman now, he threw the pelt up to her and she caught it, taking it off with her as a trophy.

The second Act began with Aaron’s soliloquy, and I just couldn’t make out the words at all. Kevin Harvey was using a Scouse accent, which is fine but it took me so long to tune in to it that he might as well have been talking a foreign language. Things changed when Chiron and Demetrius arrived. They were skinny little things, almost too small to be warriors, but they were squaring up to each other in an attempt to look strong. They drew their knives, and Aaron finally broke into their quarrel to calm them down. I was able to tune into his accent by this time, so I could appreciate the directness of his villainy as he persuaded them to work together to ravish Lavinia, making use of the planned hunting expedition to draw her away from company and carry out the rape away from prying eyes.

The hunting began, and as the hunting party assembled, some soldiers brought black cinders onto the stage and spread them around a little. Then Aaron had a short scene where he buried gold by the right hand pillar, standing in for an elder tree. Tamora found him there, and while he left to fetch her sons, Lavinia and Bassianus arrived and spoke a little too freely to Tamora. Their suspicions of her unfaithfulness were correct, but that was no use to them when Aaron, Chiron and Demetrius turned up. Tamora made a ridiculous accusation against the young couple, and her sons stabbed Bassianus in her ‘defence’. He didn’t die straightaway, but writhed on the ground for a while, and I think he lived long enough to hear the threat to Lavinia’s chastity. His body lay there while Lavinia pleaded to be killed quickly instead of raped and Tamora warned her sons to make sure that Lavinia couldn’t accuse them afterwards. They took Lavinia away, and it was Tamora who dragged Bassianus’ body to the middle of the stage so that it could be lowered into the pit. She then picked up her fur stole and left the stage.

The next scene began with one of Titus’ sons looking over the balcony to the pit below, emphasising the long drop down. A voice from below spoke the other brother’s lines – “Why dost thou not comfort me and help me out” – and so we learned that Aaron had lured the brothers to the pit to trap them. The brother on the balcony, Quintus, also fell into the pit, so both brothers were there when Aaron brought Saturninus and his soldiers to discover them. The bag of gold was additional evidence, as was a letter which Aaron had thoughtfully provided and which Tamora now passed to the Emperor to prove the brothers’ guilt. Titus was distressed: I would say ‘naturally’ but Titus hadn’t managed to pull off what we would call a ‘natural’ reaction since the play began.

With the brothers pulled out of the pit and dragged off for punishment, the court left the stage and the centre of the pit rose up again. On it were Chiron, Demetrius and Lavinia. The two boys had some blood on them, and looked reasonably pleased with themselves. Lavinia was curled up with her back to the audience; all we could see was that her long blond hair had been hacked off. The two rapists taunted her with their deeds before leaving, and then Lavinia struggled to her feet. It was an appalling sight, with bloody stumps for hands, and her dress dirty and torn. We didn’t get the full horror of the missing tongue till later, but knowing the details I found it hard to watch some of the following scene. Marcus found her there and after describing her suffering for her, they left to give Titus the news.

Meanwhile Titus was pleading to the tribunes to take pity on his condemned sons, who were dragged on sheets across the stage, looking the worse for a beating or two. The tribunes ignored Titus – I think they walked past him as he knelt on the stage – and he was left alone on stage, still pleading. Lucius arrived and pointed out that no one was there to hear him, but Titus was so full of grief that he carried on anyway, making the stones beneath him the recipients of his complaints. There was a small bit of audience participation during this scene, as Titus patted one woman’s head on the line “A stone is silent”. Things didn’t get any better when Marcus and Lavinia turned up; now Titus had even more to wax bitter about. I noticed this time that Lavinia refused to be kissed or even touched. The lack of physical contact and comfort for the poor girl can seem odd, but this production made her reluctance to be touched or comforted very understandable.

Aaron arrived with a bucket and we just knew he was up to no good, though I’d briefly forgotten the exact nature of this particular nastiness – offering to deliver his sons from execution if Titus will chop off one of his hands and send it to the Emperor. Lavinia had withdrawn herself to the back of the stage during this section, but even so I felt it was extremely tactless of Titus, Lucius and Marcus to argue, in her presence, over whose hand it would be best to cut off. The actual cutting was swiftly done, with Marcus and Lucius both off stage getting an axe, and soon Titus had a tarred-over stump to match Lavinia’s pair – not fun to watch. Aaron left promising to return Titus’ sons to him, while admitting to us it would only be their heads.

A messenger arrived pushing a pram stuffed with bags, including the plastic bags which held the heads of Titus’ two sons, executed despite his sacrifice and Titus’s own hand, returned in scorn. This is the point where Marcus loses it big time, while Titus just laughs – his sorrows have overflowed and tipped him into near-madness with their excess. His “Ha, ha, ha!” was stated flatly, with each “ha” given equal weight. By this time Lavinia had come to her father to comfort him, and they embraced at least once.

She took up the hand (in its bag) between her teeth to get it off stage, and she, Marcus and Titus left the stage to Lucius, who had been banished from Rome. He had some final lines to speak to finish the scene, and then the drumming began. One of the drums was on the balcony, while several others were carried on to the stage and flowed around Lucius who stood at the front, almost in the spotlight so thoughtfully provided, and facing the back of the stage where the new queen of the Goths now stood. Some of the men took off Lucius’ shirt, and there was a flash of fire as she heated a branding iron in a flame. As the flame died down she branded Lucius on the chest, and they even introduced the sizzle of burning flesh (artificial, I’m sure) to add to the effect. The lights went out, the drumming stopped, and we had an interval to help us recover from the stresses of the first half.

It also allowed the stage crew to clean up the stage a bit. The cinders were swept up and a large table was brought on. It had a white tablecloth, some plates and breakfast things – boiled eggs were the breakfast of choice in the Andronicus household apparently – and one chair on each side looking absurdly small against the huge table. I have no idea why Lavinia, at the start of the second half, came out from under the table. Her stumps now had leather covers, her hair had been tidied up and she seemed less distressed than before. She sat at the table, while Marcus and Titus came on and took their places, leaving the chair at the front for young Lucius. He arrived carrying some school books, and placed them beside him on the table.

I don’t know if the dialogue was cut for this scene; it certainly didn’t seem tedious, so if it was all included they did a good job. Young Lucius was the fly-killer in this production – my text has Marcus doing the murderous act – and it was shortly after this that Lavinia knocked the books out of young Lucius’ hands and started rummaging amongst them for the one she wanted; no change of scene required. Once they realised that she had been raped, Marcus checked out the suitability of the sugar shaker [actually a large salt cellar] as a method of writing, holding it between his own wrists and trying to write some letters – the dialogue was suitably adjusted. He then brought Lavinia up onto the table beside him, and she spelled out the names of Tamora’s sons. This gave Titus a focus for his revenge, and he was soon planning to take the rapists down.

Before the next scene, Tamora appeared on the balcony, groaning and holding her swollen belly – we all knew what that meant. She made it across the balcony and was helped off by a nun. The central section of the stage then rose up, showing us her sons, lying on a bed with two young women with sportive dispositions and few clothes. Aaron soon arrived, as did young Lucius, bearing gifts from Titus. After he had gone, Aaron encouraged the two young men to brag about their good fortune, and it wasn’t long before the nurse arrived, carrying a baby in her arms. She was agitated, because the baby was so obviously Aaron’s that the Emperor would know that his wife had been unfaithful, but Aaron was determined to keep the baby alive despite the risks. He killed the nurse – we could see that coming, unlike her – and had the wit to organise a substitute baby to keep the Emperor happy. His care for the baby was the only positive aspect we saw of Aaron’s character, although it didn’t remotely make up for the extensive villainy.

The next scene was a puzzle. The bed sank down to create a shallow pit, and some of the characters who entered with Titus and Marcus laid a large map over it which only just reached across. The dialogue wasn’t as clear, but it seemed that Titus had gone mad and was looking for Justice(?) somewhere and, unable to find her, ended up shooting petitions into the sky in the hope that the gods would help out. Reading the text, I seem to have understood the scene more than I realised; even so, it was probably the least good part of the play, though whether that was down to the writing or performance I couldn’t judge. A blind man then arrived carrying two pigeons round his neck. Titus mistook him for a messenger from the gods, and sent him to the Emperor with a petition, but as he had arranged for a knife to be placed inside the scroll it looked like it would be the blind man’s last act.

Saturninus was in his bath for the next scene, while Tamora was pushing a pram which clearly held the substitute baby. She billed and cooed over it, even taking it out and holding it as Saturninus ranted about the effect Titus’ messages to the gods were having on the Roman citizens. The blind man delivered his message and was promptly sent to be hanged, said execution taking place on the balcony. The news that Lucius and the Goths were marching on Rome made Saturninus more petulant than ever – he even got out of his bath – but Tamora soothed him with her plan to get Titus to dissuade Lucius from attacking Rome.

When the Goths turned up with Lucius, it seemed they had elected a new Queen, slightly confusing in the circumstances; my text simply refers to “a Goth”, but the woman who spoke after Lucius’ pep talk was clearly their new leader. Aaron was brought on stage – I’m not sure how much we saw of the baby – and only just managed to persuade Lucius to spare his son in return for information. When he mentioned that the baby was his and Tamora’s, Lucius shuddered at the thought of sex with that woman, but once he’d heard the rest of the story he decided that Aaron would be more useful alive than dead.

Before Tamora came on stage with her sons for the next scene, Titus appeared on the balcony, reading some letters. Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius were dressed up in animal hides, but were still clearly themselves; only their conviction that Titus was mad would make their disguises remotely viable. She did her best to persuade Titus of her new persona, and she was temporarily dismayed when he asked her to kill her two sons, Rape and Murder, but recovered well enough to assure him they were her ministers.

When Titus did come down to her, he gave her a big one-handed hug, which took her by surprise. It lasted quite a long time and she had to rearrange her disguise once it was over. Titus agreed to send for Lucius to attend a feast, at which the Emperor and Tamora would also be present, and only asked that Rape and Murder stay behind with him to which Revenge agreed, thinking that all was well. When the Empress had gone, Titus called on some of his supporters to seize Chiron and Demetrius, although he still referred to them as Rape and Murder, and they soon had the lads strung up by their feet near the front of the stage.

When Lavinia entered, carrying a basin across her stumps, Steve spotted that something slipped out of it and fell on the stage. We assumed it was the knife, as Titus couldn’t find it when he came to slit the brothers’ throats; he mimed it instead, which was fair enough, and this will undoubtedly be sorted by the next time we see the production. Although this meant there was no blood dripping into the basin or onto the stage, I noticed the cleanup crew still wiped the area as planned.

With the bodies removed, the tables were brought on stage for the banquet. This time there were two long tables, placed towards the rear of the stage and laid with a cloth, plates, etc. Chairs were placed down each side, and when the guests arrived, Titus appeared dressed in a maid’s outfit – black dress, white apron, black wig – very fetching. Lavinia was dressed as a waiter, and once the guests sat down the pasties were served. Tamora tucked in with relish, no doubt looking forward to her plans bearing fruit. Titus, on the other hand, asked the Emperor for his views on killing a daughter who had been raped. The Emperor held the traditional Roman view that a dishonoured child should not be allowed to live, and so Titus grabbed Lavinia and smothered her; she did not go willingly this time, but despite her resistance Titus killed her and laid her body on the ground.

Even with this bizarre floor show, Tamora was happily tucking into more pie until Titus listed the ingredients for her and Saturninus – no ‘E’ numbers, but plenty of ‘C’ and ‘D’. The other guests were appalled when Tamora still took another bite of the pie, and then the orgy of killing began, with Titus stabbing Tamora, Saturninus stabbing him, and Lucius and his men pretty much killing the rest. The stage was littered with dead bodies, turning the final scene into farce and lessening the impact of the horrific scenes we’d witnessed so far; perhaps this was the intention.

At the end of the slaughter, Lucius senior stood on the table, twitching slightly, until he received the crown. Marcus spoke to the dead bodies, as did Lucius, and Marcus spat on Tamora before moving Lavinia over to lie by her father. Aaron was sent off to be killed by being buried in a hole up to his neck, and shortly afterwards Lucius moved the front table to one side to reveal Aaron’s head sticking up through the floor. Aaron cursed for a bit – the others had left the stage – and then young Lucius came on carrying the baby. His attitude towards it wasn’t clear at first, but then he went over to the centre of the stage, picked up a cake slice and held it as if he was going to kill the baby. The lights went out at that point, sparing us more bloodshed.

It was a good ending to a very bloodthirsty play, and was well signposted by having young Lucius kill the fly instead of Marcus. His excuse to his grandfather Titus was that it resembled Aaron the Moor, so we could infer that he would be likely to kill Aaron’s child. And so the cycle of killing goes on……

This was a very good first performance, with a few glitches here and there and some unclear dialogue, but mostly the action and the characters kept us engaged and ‘enjoying’ ourselves. It’s hard to say the final scene was over the top when the whole play is full of murder, executions, mutilations, etc., but that’s how it felt. Mind you, it was only a reflection of Titus’ reaction when he received his sons’ heads after chopping off his hand, and perhaps it was better to relieve the pressure at that point instead of sending the audience out traumatised; the shock of Lavinia’s death was bad enough without seeing more horrors afterwards.

We’ll be seeing this one again in a few weeks, and I’ll be interested to see how it’s come on.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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