Titus Andronicus – July 2014

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Wednesday 2nd July 2014

This rating was Steve’s – I chose to spend the second half in the Globe café so as not to be completely bored out of my mind. Even so, I would have given the first half a 5/10 rating as there were some good bits, but so much was happening on the far side of a pillar today that I wasn’t able to engage with or enjoy the performance at all.

Those of us in the North tower (Gentlemen’s rooms) were kept waiting till about fifteen minutes before the scheduled start time – the stalls and groundlings weren’t allowed through the doors for another five minutes. I had little time to note the set design as a result, but fortunately there wasn’t a lot to report. The stage was again swathed in black drapes with the usual entrances at the back. There were two large incense burners at the rear of the stage which were very effective – I could smell the pong on the way in. The front of the stage had been extended in a similar fashion to The Last Days Of Troy, but the sides of the extension sloped down to ground level allowing for easy access; there were no steps at the sides of the stage this time.

On either side of the pit were two tall platforms. Just the struts, ladder steps and floor with a simple rail and as they were moved around quite easily they must have been on wheels. Coliseum-like awnings stretched from the roof of the stage to the thatched roof of the theatre and gave a lot of shade; unfortunately this didn’t prevent a high number of casualties during the afternoon, although how many were suffering from the heat and how many from the (literally) bloody play I have no idea.

Some musicians and/or servants meandered onto stage during the brief spell before the play started, and took up positions around the place. One even perched on one of the platforms, and had to repel boarders – a woman thought it would be a good idea to join him and had to be rebuffed. During this pre-performance phase, there were various noises coming from backstage, mechanical noises for the most part. Steve reckoned they were getting the cutlery sharpened early, while I thought they might be checking that the thunder machine was working properly. Smoke started pouring out from under the front part of the stage as well, and it was rather thick – I was surprised the audience crowding around that section didn’t move away a little, but perhaps they’ve learned from experience that position is everything in life. We did briefly wonder if we were in for a fire drill, but it must have been a planned part of the performance.

The first casualty of the day occurred right in the middle of the pit. A woman was helped to lie down by some of the audience members around her, who summoned the stewards with much waving of hands. Almost before the woman was on the ground, a soldier started banging on the one of the platforms with his sword, and the play sort of began; I was still distracted by the medical emergency so the opening scene with its dramatic confrontation between Saturninus and Bassianus rather passed me by. The towers were moved around during this bit as each of the brothers delivered his speech, but the tower on the right was blocked by those tending to the fallen woman, so that may not have helped either.

Marcus came on from the back and stood centre front for his bits, and for a few moments I was surprised not to see Titus straightaway; I had to remind myself that the recent RSC production had tinkered with the action to good effect, but now we were getting the straight version. After the lady had been taken out, the towers were brought to the stage so that Bassianus and Saturninus could step straight onto it. Bassianus leapt athletically over the railing while Saturninus generally used a hinged section of railing to move across. Once done, the platforms were stowed at the sides of the pit, ready for later use.

This production wasn’t averse to a bit of tinkering with the text either. Instead of a Captain, the next person on stage was Bacchus, a Roman drunk, played by David Shaw-Parker. He gave us the Captain’s lines, but not before some fooling around with the audience over on the far side of the stage; I heard the laughter, but not what caused it, partly because of the distance and partly because of the loud drumming which was going on underneath us.

Titus arrived from our side being carried on a litter, with Tamora and her sons cowering in chains in front of him. Two black coffins were carried behind him, and while the litter was taken round the pit, the coffins were carried up onto the stage and laid side by side. The litter was brought to the front of the stage for Titus to climb out, and was then set down so the prisoners could be dragged round and up the ramp on our side to be taken across the stage to ‘hide’ behind a pillar. Titus’ remaining four sons stood behind the coffins and then opened up the trapdoors in the middle of the stage for the graves. Titus spoke to the opening thus created – “O sacred receptacle of my joys” – and when his sons asked for a sacrifice, he stabbed Alarbus himself despite Tamora’s pleas that he be spared. The captives were hidden by the pillar all through this scene, so I only caught a glimpse, but that’s how it looked to me.

I think Titus sprinkled black petals over the coffins after the sacrifice. The trumpets they used for the burial scene were very long. One man stood a few yards in front of the two trumpeters and their instruments rested on his shoulders. A slightly smaller trumpet was played by one man on the far ramp, and the sound was very effective.

Marcus brought Lavinia on stage on the right side, and she scattered some white petals in remembrance of her dead brothers. This Titus was more physical than some, hugging Lavinia and his brother Marcus during this reunion, clearly glad to see them. I found the dialogue in these opening scenes wasn’t as well delivered as I would have liked, and with my blocked view I was already feeling a bit unhappy with the production, but still willing to give it a chance.

Saturninus and Bassianus arrived, and Lavinia ran immediately to Bassianus. The offer of candidacy was made to Titus, and Saturninus drew his sword (knife?) to back his claim at the appropriate moment. Titus restored some semblance of order, and addressed the audience as if we were the people of Rome. Since we hadn’t been coached, it could have been a tricky moment if the drunk hadn’t replied on our behalf from his vantage point on the middle gallery balcony. Mind you, he may have been a tribune at that point, it was hard to tell. After a brief pause, Titus backed Saturninus for Emperor.

Naturally Saturninus was delighted at being given the nod, while Bassianus was correspondingly unhappy. He left the stage followed soon after by Lavinia, but they returned for the ‘crowning’, when Marcus put a laurel wreath on the kneeling Saturninus. The new Emperor then went onto one of the platforms, brought round for the purpose, and there were white petals coming down from around the galleries to celebrate the event. As Saturninus was facing the stage and Titus, on the stage, was facing him, he (Titus) was unable to see the growing consternation behind him when Saturninus declared that he would marry Lavinia. The little group of Bassianus, Lavinia and the four brothers clustered around to hatch their plan while Titus and the Emperor formed a mutual admiration society and Titus gave his prisoners to the Emperor.

Saturninus checked Tamora out (he was back on stage at this point) and liked what he saw. (I lost a few of the lines which were covered by the rattling sound as the platform was returned to its holding position.) Releasing Tamora from her chains, he led her and her companions off stage, followed by the now redundant executioner who had stood by all the while with a very large axe. Saturninus returned briefly as Bassianus was absconding with Lavinia, and Titus bundled him off stage again for his own safety. Bassianus and Lavinia’s escape was largely hidden by the pillar, although as they left via the far ramp I was able to see some of it. Likewise the killing of Mutius was completely obscured, so I was feeling even more distant from the performance at this point.

The next scene, with Tamora being offered the crown as Saturninus’ wife, went better for me. I could see some of their reactions, and while Tamora showed her surprise before appearing absolutely delighted at the prospect of becoming Empress, Titus was shocked and dismayed by Saturninus’ choice. I realised about this time that the awnings, while giving welcome shade to the whole theatre, also cut the light available to the stage, which was another hindrance I could well have done without.

Mutius’ body was brought back on and buried; I have little idea of what was going on as most of this was behind the pillar. There were sounds of revelry backstage, followed by a general surge of people across the stage, including the drunk man who was chasing a servant. Some soldiers did a dance routine, and then Saturninus and Tamora met Bassianus and Lavinia. Tempers were fraying quickly, but Tamora stepped in to calm things down. At first she wheedled Saturninus – the little woman act – but as he wasn’t cooperating she drew him to one side and spoke more directly – “My lord, be ruled by me”; this was very funny. Saturninus withdrew for a few moments to consider her words, giving her a chance to tell us of her long-term plans, and then they joined together to appear reconciled to the rest of the group.

As most of the characters left the stage, Aaron remained, now dressed in a Roman-style tunic with a broad purple stripe down the centre and white on either side. This section became a little clearer, though the subsequent fighting between Chiron and Demetrius lost that clarity. The humour which tickled the audience was related to the business side of things, with the brothers continuing their fight in every way they could. Once Aaron introduced the idea that both of them should have Lavinia, they calmed down a bit. On “she is a woman”, Demetrius picked out a woman in the audience and made a kissing motion towards her – great laughter. As the brothers shook hands at the end something went on between them which caused more laughter – not sure what.

They left, and the hunting party came on through the left ground doors. There were quite a few extras around in this production to swell the numbers – one of its good points. The main characters greeted the newlyweds on stage and threw water over them, and there was a very bawdy response to Lavinia’s boast that she had “been awake a broad two hours and more.”

The hunt was represented by a boar’s head shape on top of a pole, which was followed around the pit by some trumpets(?) with hound shapes on them (I think). The drunk followed after the hunting party leaving Aaron alone on stage. He planted the bag of gold to one side of the right pillar – for once I could see the action clearly! He and Tamora were soon lying on the ground together as she tried to persuade him that this was the perfect place for some illicit nooky (she used fancier words, but that was the gist) but he put her off as he had more important things to be doing. She tucked the letter he gave her into her pocket as Bassianus and Lavinia came on to scold and taunt her.

Their behaviour seemed more appropriate this time, showing their concern for the sanctity of the Imperial marriage bed. Chiron and Demetrius soon arrived to support their mother, and both were carrying nets. One of them laid his net out on the ground while the other carried his with him, and even had part of it in his mouth at one point. Bassianus and Lavinia were aware of their danger and kept together in the middle of the stage as the two boys circled them, waiting for the moment to strike, as their mother told them all sorts of crazy tales about what Bassianus and Lavinia had been saying. Just before the brothers attacked, Bassianus and Lavinia had a long kiss, and then she was snared in one net while Bassianus was presumably being stabbed to death by the other brother (you’ve guessed it, the pillar got in the way).

I was a bit distracted during Lavinia’s pleas to Tamora by the fact that several of the servant characters were sneaking through the audience and gathering by the front of the stage, chivvying the people standing there out of the way. I wasn’t sure if Tamora was affected by Lavinia’s speech, since she had rather intelligently linked her own plight to that lady’s supposed motherly feelings, but Tamora’s response dispelled any notion that she had compassion to spare.

As Lavinia knelt before her to make her final plea – “’Tis present death I beg” – the servants round the front of the stage drew out a large black net and held it at a sloping angle – it took up quite a bit of space. It proved very handy though, as it meant that the boys could simply swing Bassianus’ body round and dump it off the end of the stage where it rolled down the slope into the bottom of the pit. Mind you, it came off the net at the bottom and had to be manoeuvred into place ready for the Andronici brothers to join it – all of this was another distraction.

Aaron brought the two brothers to the place, and while one, Martius, fell in almost immediately, the other stayed at the front of the stage while Aaron left on the far side and walked round to come on again by the near ramp. As he walked round the back of the pit, I noticed that he tipped up a gentleman’s hat with his spear – all in jest, of course.

The second brother, Quintus, tried to get Martius out of the pit a couple of times. They managed to grab each other’s hands, but the slope was just too much for them, and Quintus failed each time. On the third go, he also fell into the pit, and the two of them plus Bassianus’ body pretty much filled it up. These attempts generated quite a bit of laughter. Saturninus arrived with a soldier or two and also Aaron, who ‘found’ the bag of gold behind the pillar as described in the letter which Tamora had delivered. The sons were brought out of the pit – this must have been the easiest extraction ever – while Bassianus’ body was wrapped in the net and carried off. The crowd then surged back into the space they’d vacated.

With the Emperor’s party off stage, Chiron and Demetrius returned, I think from the back. Lavinia was still in a net, only this time it and she were covered in red. She was struggling to release herself until Demetrius took the net off her, and then she mostly lay still until after the brothers left. There was music and some petals – no idea why – and blood came out of her mouth when she tried to speak to her uncle Marcus. He took off his robe and put it round her, and then they both sat on the stage for the final part of Marcus’ speech. I found this part slightly sickening but not moving.

Titus entered from the right side of the pit, pleading with the stoical tribune to pity his condemned sons. They were also in the procession, heavily guarded and followed by the axe man – work at last! After the others left, Titus spent a few moments ranting against the stones of Rome – kneeling on the stage at this point – before Marcus brought on Lavinia. At this time I could hear some talking going on elsewhere. Steve reckoned it was in the Gentleman’s room next door, and that someone else had been taken poorly and needed to be helped out. With a few other folk wobbling their way out of the pit area during the first half, this was becoming one of the highest casualty totals we’d encountered here.

When Titus saw Lavinia, I was briefly aware that he may have seen similar mutilations during his campaigns but this time it was his own daughter who had been treated this way, and so naturally he was affected by the sight of her. Lavinia was upset to hear that her own brothers were being executed for killing her husband, but there was nothing she could do at this time to prevent it. When Aaron brought on a small chopping block and axe to make the fake offer to Titus, Lavinia was covered up by Marcus’ robe to conceal her from Aaron’s view. There was more laughter as the three Andronici played a game of hands on the chopping block, but when Marcus and Lucius left to find an axe, Titus’ own hand was soon removed by Aaron. Titus had his back to the audience and Aaron stood in our way, so I don’t know how they did that bit. Lucius and Marcus bound Titus’ stump, and as Aaron left he did something with Titus’ hand which caused a laugh from the crowd.

The tribune brought on the heads of Martius and Quintus, along with Titus’ hand, in plastic bags, and again there was laughter. While I’m happy that they chose to bring out oodles of humour in this production, I was getting a bit fed up that there was nothing whatsoever to move me in all of this. I was pretty much ready to consider leaving at the interval, and nothing I saw in the remaining ten minutes or so changed my mind. The tribune threw the heads and hand down on the stage and then left. Marcus’ anger, which should blaze out at this point, was largely unremarkable, and Titus’ laughter was neither moving nor shocking. Titus brought his family together to swear the oath for revenge, and again there was laughter for some unseen reason. With their departure, Lucius made his farewells to Rome, and we were finally freed by the interval. I noticed there was very little applause at first, as few people seemed to realise they had taken one!

With life being too short to waste on unprofitable experiences, I decided to sit the second half out, while Steve chose to continue to the bitter end. Given that he nodded off a few times through the performance, his comments on what happened are incomplete, but as I was interested in the staging choices, I include them here for my own benefit. (Incidentally, the carrot cake was quite delicious.)

There was some chanting and carousing to start the second half, and there appeared to be a meal going on, with Tamora showing off her big round belly. Then we were back on text, with a gathering of the Andronici. Young Lucius was terrified of his aunt, who apparently lunged at him even though he had already dropped his books. For the name-writing section, Marcus just happened to have a bag of sand with him – how useful! – and he tipped it on to the stage and demonstrated how to use a staff to write in it. Lavinia wrote the names standing up with the staff gripped between her stumps, and her family guessed the names before she’d finished writing them. Well, if she started with “Chiron”, it would take a seriously stupid person not to guess “Demetrius” after the “D-E-M”. (Although according to Steve it only needed the D for them to guess Demetrius – perhaps they’re getting bored?)

Aaron drew his sword and stuck the nurse where the sun don’t shine, shocking Demetrius and Chiron. These two weren’t so slow on the uptake when Aaron explained his baby-substitution plan, and Aaron picked someone in the audience to refer to as “my countryman”, which raised a laugh. Titus wasn’t so crazy during the arrow-firing scene – they used regular bows and arrows this time – but the audience looked nervous when the archers faced outwards and prepared to fire. The second volley produced a small number of feathers falling down (presumably another laugh).

The chap with the pigeons came on through the audience. He had the pigeons on each end of a long yoke, and as he swung the yoke from side to side, the audience had to look lively to avoid getting clobbered by a pigeon. Titus got young Lucius to bend over so that he could use him as a writing table, and when he had written the petition, they handed the it, plus the knife wrapped in it, to the pigeon man to carry to the Emperor. The poor chap was a bit slow, and when the knife fell out in front of the Emperor, Chiron and Demetrius grabbed him and snapped his neck on stage, rather than taking him off to be hanged as Saturninus had ordered. News of Lucius came and Saturninus turned back into a wimp, but Tamora bolstered his flagging courage with a cunning plan.

Steve had no clear memory of the scene with Revenge, Rape and Murder visiting Titus, but he did remember seeing the two boys strung up by their feet and having their throats cut, with lots of blood dripping into the bowl held by Lavinia. Aaron and his baby were brought on to be interrogated by Lucius, and when it came to the feast, Saturninus and Tamora arrived and sat at one side of the table facing the audience, with Lucius sitting at the far end from Steve’s seat. Titus served up some pie to Tamora and the Emperor, and she took the first bite. It must have been good, because she gave a big smile, and then Saturninus tucked in as well. Titus didn’t give his son any.

Following Titus’ question to Saturninus about the propriety of suicide for dishonoured women, Titus drew his daughter to himself and killed her in some unseen way, taking his time as the others looked on in horror. Tamora started retching once Titus had revealed the pie ingredients, and Titus grabbed her by the back of her head and shoved her face down in the remaining pie before stabbing her. Saturninus took the knife and stabbed Titus, and then Lucius killed Saturninus. The Goths arrived, and took Lucius and Marcus and put them on the platforms for Marcus’ speech. The tribune was understandably happy for Lucius to be the next Emperor, and Lucius was crowned with the laurel wreath in a similar way to Saturninus earlier. Aaron was brought on, Lucius pronounced his sentence, and the Goths carried him off again.

That was actually the end of the performance, but again nobody seemed to know it. Lucius bent down and helped Titus up, and the cast launched themselves into the customary dance, during which Steve left. There was plenty of applause, but not from us this time.

It’s unfortunate that we found this so unenjoyable. Apart from the restricted view – which could have been ameliorated by more considerate staging – our experience was probably affected by having seen such a strong production at the RSC last year. I like William Houston as an actor, but Stephen Boxer has such a talent for delivering Shakespeare’s lines that there’s no comparison, and with a production apparently focused entirely on laughs, this was never going to hit the heights that the RSC managed to. The number of people being carried out was also a distraction, and the audience ‘fatalities’ may even have outnumbered those in the play!

The cast did their best, and we have no criticism of any of the actors, although it would have been nice to hear more of the dialogue. It was good to see Dyfan Dwyfor playing a more meaty role after his Dromios of Syracuse, and I’ve no doubt that Indira Varma was a powerful Tamora for those who could see her. Obi Abili is developing an impressive CV and I liked what I saw of his Aaron, and both William Houston and Ian Gelder were fine as Titus and his brother Marcus, given the limitations in our viewing mentioned above. We’re hoping for better luck next time.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me


2 comments on “Titus Andronicus – July 2014

  1. Anjna says:

    Thanks, Shiela, for this honest review. I have to say that I was very disappointed by the production, especially – as you say – having seen the excellent RSC version last year. Too much stage business eats up running time in the Lucy Bailey production, and I’m convinced all the audience swooning is down to the warm, smokey atmosphere. I agree that the performances were sound, especially Saturninus. Thanks for the great review!

    • Thanks for your comments, Anjna. ‘Less is more’, especially with Shakespeare and more so in the thrust spaces like the RST, Swan and Globe. I thought the Globe’s Julius Caesar was better, if you get a chance to see it.

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