Titus Andronicus – May 2013 (2)

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Fentiman

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 30th May 2013 (eve)

Another viewing of this production, and again the performances have all come on since opening night. The blood worked this time, and while the auditorium wasn’t packed, there were enough of us for a decent atmosphere to develop. Some of the details I noticed were new to me, but I can’t be certain they were changes in the performance, and as we sat in a similar place tonight (beside the right walkway) there was no significant change in perspective.

Knowing what was to come meant that I took in more of the opening scene. I forgot to mention last time that the curtain behind the trollies had a large eagle symbol on it which I think may have been the symbol on Saturninus and Bassianus’ armbands as well. Titus kissed the foreheads of his dead sons before sitting down to have his fag, and there was military music playing on the radio.

Saturninus and Bassianus arrived together on the balcony to make their plea to the Roman voters, and this time there was no reverb from the radio, a good choice. As Titus listened to Marcus I could see some reactions on his face suggesting he wasn’t taken with being put forward as a candidate for the Emperorship. He took off the laurel wreath he was wearing at the end of the speeches and as he prepared to bury his dead sons, I noticed that one of the live ones (Mutius?) placed a bag in his hand. We’d learned that the bag contained salt rather than dust, which fitted in better with the use of salt by Lavinia.

I noticed Tamora and her sons this time – they were revealed when the curtains were drawn back. Tamora let out an anguished howl of “no” as her eldest son was lowered down for the sacrifice. When Lavinia arrived, she knelt down and scooped the water out of the bowl on the words “tributary tears”, emphasising the ritualistic element of the movement. The tribunes who stood on the balcony supporting Marcus were dressed in black robes, like monks, and again Titus paused as he calculated just how many sons he’d lost in Rome’s service. Saturninus threw off his candidate’s sash as soon as Titus named him successor, but this time Titus didn’t pause on “whose virtues will, I hope, reflect on Rome…” As Saturninus was declaring his intention to marry Lavinia, who stood behind him with her brothers under the balcony, he locked eyes with Bassianus, bringing his hidden agenda very much into the open, and I noticed that Bassianus grabbed Titus’ own sword to defend his elopement with Lavinia. The newly married couple returned just in time to see Mutius being lifted up for burial, and when Lavinia swooned at the sight, Bassianus caught her in his arms.

I was more aware of the tattoos on Tamora and her sons tonight – don’t know if they were more prominent or not. I also found it easier to follow Aaron’s opening speech, which was probably due to my familiarity with his accent. I noticed his coat was fur-lined (that’s the kind of detail that catches my eye) suggesting both his feral nature and the luxury he was now enjoying as ‘favourite’ of the Empress.

Chiron and Demetrius were both stronger tonight, although not in physical terms – their arms were just as skinny as before. When Aaron suggested a joint venture for Lavinia, they looked at each other and shrugged; neither was concerned about sharing the lady. They arrived for the hunting on bikes – forgot that last time – and took them off stage when they left. Tamora was wearing a slinky black dress, cut to the hip on one side, with a massive hairdo and a huge fur shrug. The shrug hit the floor when she was trying to persuade Aaron to have some fun, and she didn’t pick it up again until the end of the scene.

After Bassianus was stabbed, he fell into Lavinia’s arms and they toppled over, so that he was lying on top of her. He was dragged off by the Goth brothers so that they could get at Lavinia, and Bassianus was definitely aware of their intentions before he died. Bassianus’ dead body was dragged over to the central pit by Tamora after her sons had taken Lavinia away, and the next scene was played differently from before. Instead of Bassianus’ body being lowered down and a voice coming from below, the body stayed on the stage and the brother who had already fallen in the pit knelt beside it to speak his lines. The other brother was on the top balcony, spotlit, and this time I spotted Aaron beside him at the start of the scene. Aaron soon left to fetch Saturninus, and as the upper brother, Quintus, stretched out his hand to help his brother, he leaned forward. I could see he was strapped in – health and safety – but to represent his fall the lights went out, briefly.

When they came back up, the pit had been lowered and the upper brother removed so that the Emperor and his followers simply arrived at a big hole in the ground. I noticed that Titus was carrying the letter which Aaron had given to Tamora for the Emperor, which was a nice touch; she trusted that Titus would hand it over to the Emperor when required – he did – and it was another twist of the knife in Titus’ heart to let him read it in advance. The text also indicates that Titus ‘found’ the letter, so it was a good all round staging choice. I spotted tonight that Tamora’s promise to Titus that she “will entreat the King” gave Titus his misplaced confidence in the later offer of a hand for two sons.

We weren’t so shocked by Lavinia’s appearance this time, though it was still difficult to watch her suffering. The stuff on the end of her hands, which had looked like candy floss last time, turned out to be her hair, hanging in long tufts from each stump. When Titus discovered her mutilation, I was reminded of King Lear’s descent into madness in Stephen Boxer’s performance, particularly on the lines “Had I but seen thy picture in this plight It would have madded me. What shall I do Now I behold thy lively body so?”.

Lavinia had been sitting on the ground during some of this speech, but she stood up and ran to the back of the stage when Aaron arrived with his tar bucket. We spotted that Aaron used a saw to remove Titus’ hand, and there was some laughter at this point. Lavinia came forward to join Titus after Aaron left, and after the messenger had delivered the heads of Titus’ sons – I noticed this time that the messenger had a posh accent – Lavinia kissed Titus while Marcus was having his rant. This time Stephen Boxer did Titus’ laughs as little runs of “Ha, ha, ha”, much more like madness, while Lavinia became very interested when the discussion turned to revenge. Titus picked up his sons’ heads and listened to each one on the line “Come, let me see what task I have to do” – creepy. He also touched each of the other character’s foreheads with his stump, as if in blessing – Lavinia was the only one who was comfortable with that – and Titus himself pushed the pram off stage (the one the messenger had brought on when delivering the heads).

After the interval, Lavinia still climbed out from beneath the table for no apparent reason I could see. She sat at the table and managed to break up some bread and get it in her mouth; we discovered the next day that the eggs had been chosen to give her something almost impossible to eat. Young Lucius arrived first – a different actor to our previous visit – and when Lavinia approached him he shied away from her. Marcus spoke first, using the lines from the next scene “Do not fear thine aunt.” followed by the usual opening lines from Titus. After young Lucius had killed the fly, Titus had it in his hand and later slapped his forehead, presumably forgetting the fly was there. Young Lucius picked up a book to read, Lavinia spotted this and came over to him, he hastily collected the books and tried to get away but she grabbed at him and the books fell on the floor. She launched herself at them while Marcus and Titus reassured young Lucius and watched Lavinia’s actions. It was clearer this time that Marcus used a salt shaker to write on the table top – I could see the salt and pepper together on the table before he grabbed one. Lavinia stood behind Marcus as he tried out the salt writing method, and was quick to understand how it worked. She was very keen to tell them who the guilty pair were; her focus on revenge was very clear. She only had to spell out a few letters before Marcus guessed the full name, and at the end of the scene, as they headed off stage, Titus put a pan on young Lucius’ head in place of a helmet.

It might have been the same nun for the next little section as in the opening scene; she was smoking a fag and watching Tamora as she struggled to cross the balcony, groaning loudly and clutching her very round belly. The nun’s disinterested attitude was a bit strange – did she know Tamora was an adulteress or just anti-Goth – but at least we had been pre-warned that a baby was expected. Young Lucius arrived with the presents from Titus almost as soon as the bed containing Chiron, Demetrius and two young ladies had stopped rising up from below. Aaron was standing at the back initially, and placed the gifts on a table behind the bed. There was a fanfare announcing the baby’s birth just before the nun arrived with the newborn in her arms, and the two young women were sent packing after that, none too happy to be going. Aaron’s references to classical literature seemed a little out of place, given his background, but perhaps he’d spent his time in Rome catching up with the latest publications; we’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt.

All that classical education didn’t make him better behaved, though. Aaron sat beside the nun at the end of the bed, all friendly-like, before stabbing her in the stomach. She fell back and sideward on the bed making the necessary screaming noises, allowing him to stick her in the bum to finish her off, most undignified. Chiron and Demetrius were very slow on the uptake regarding the substitute baby – good job they’ve got Aaron to do their thinking for them.

The next scene struck me as a strategy meeting for Titus and his allies this time, showing Titus’ madness as he planned how to get justice from the various gods. The blind chap with the pigeons was singing before he came on stage; he arrived as they drew their bows to fire their messages towards the gods, and they finally fired them off after he left the stage, which is a change to my text.

For the next scene, Tamora was carrying the baby in a small basket rather than the pram, and she took him out and carried him round during the scene. Her affection was a little surprising, given that the child isn’t hers, but as it does provide her with cover for her adultery, perhaps the affection is understandable. Or maybe her hormones had kicked in, who knows? Either way she was most attentive to the little mite.

Saturninus leapt out of his bath as the blind messenger approached, quickly covering the crown jewels with a sponge. Chiron and Demetrius took the messenger away to be hanged, while Tamora comforted Saturninus after they received the news about the Goths; he was sitting beside her on the floor and she kept putting his head in her lap as she told him of her plot to use Titus to ensnare Lucius. The hanging of the messenger took place after this scene; presumably it gave them time to clear up the stage after the Emperor leapt out of his bath.

When Aaron was boasting about fathering Tamora’s baby, there seemed to be less revulsion expressed by Lucius this time. There must have been a problem with the noose around Aaron’s neck tonight, as he had to keep pulling his coat or scarf down to avoid being choked, a neat trick with both hands tied behind his back! One of the Goths was going to kill Aemilius when he arrived, but Lucius stopped him.

Titus gave a sheet of paper to each of Rape, Murder and Revenge when they were having their little chat, as if they were Wanted posters describing the offenders. He also gave Tamora a parting kiss, which was more than she expected. After the boys were strung up, Lavinia entered at the back wearing the same blood-stained dress she had been raped in and carrying the basin on her stumps. The knife wasn’t lost tonight and the blood was able to pour out, although I didn’t see much from the first son; the second produced plenty for the basin.

The tables for the banquet were wheeled on already laid. Titus’ wig was black tonight, and since I doubt they went to the expense of making two, I probably misremembered it being blond the first time round. There was bright cheerful music for the start of the banquet, and when Titus whisked the cover off the pasty tray, Tamora looked delighted with the contents. Lavinia was till in her bloody dress but with a waiter’s jacket, and she came on behind Saturninus as he gave his judgement about a father killing his deflowered daughter; it was clear he was completely unaware of her presence. Titus grabbed her and smothered her at the front of the stage; she didn’t resist as much, but her body jerked around as it fought for air, with her heels drumming on the stage for a short while before she went limp. Titus had used a towel to smother her; now he laid it over her dead body.

The guests had been shocked by Titus’ actions, although Tamora seemed to be enjoying the show. She and the Emperor weren’t given an extra slice of pie tonight, but she still took another bite of the slice she already had even after Titus had listed the ingredients; the rest of the guests watched her, appalled, as she locked eyes with Titus and forced it down. A few threw up afterwards, but they didn’t have a lot of time as the killing started almost immediately.

With bodies everywhere, Marcus, who had been stabbed, smeared blood on his face while Titus was sitting on the floor with his back against the table and Saturninus was sitting in his chair, dead. Tamora was lying across the front of the stage. Lucius’ acceptance of the crown seemed quite absurd at this point – was there anyone else left alive in Rome? – and when he stepped down from the table, he patted the dead Saturninus on the shoulder, causing his body to fall to the floor. Aaron couldn’t speak when he was brought on and sentenced, but he made up for it once the table was moved aside and his head appeared sticking up out of a hole. Young Lucius finished the play off with the baby in his arms and holding the cake slice, and that was that.

The story-telling was clearer and we saw considerably more detail in the performances tonight. There was less shock-value, of course, but it was still tough going at times, despite the humour. The audience was very appreciative, and although it’s a good production, the nature of this play means it’s unlikely to pack the place out. A shame, but understandable.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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