REVIEW: Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe

May 2, 2014


For most of the last few centuries Shakespeare scholars have relegated Titus Andronicus to somewhere near the bottom of the league table. The very aspects that they deem unworthy of Will –  the torture, rape, mutilation and murder – are the kind of qualities that certainly don’t harm its box office appeal. Lucy Bailey‘s blood-and-guts production is occasionally hard to watch – it contains the most appalling murder I’ve yet seen on the stage – but it makes for a compelling, strangely entertaining, evening.

Returning to Rome after defeating the Goths, Titus (William Houston) casually orders the murder of their Queen’s son almost as if it’s a bureaucratic necessity. Tamora (Indira Varma) witnesses this atrocity and vows vengeance on Titus and his family, a promise which is made easier to keep when the Emperor Saturninus (Matthew Needham) makes her his empress on a whim. The new empress is aided by her Moorish lover Aaron (Obi Abili) whose  cunning and spite would give Iago a run for his money.

Some parts of the play are so strange it’s hard to know whether it’s daringly experimental or just a bit unhinged. When Titus asked his handless daughter to pick up his recently severed hand with her teeth it’s so absurdly grotesque it gets a laugh, though it’s hard to know whether this was Shakespeare being darkly comic or lip-smackingly bloodthirsty. And Tamora furthering her evil plot by dressing up, with her sons, as the spirits of Revenge, Murder and Rape in order to scare Titus into doing her bidding makes for an effective, if head-scratchingly lunatic, piece of theatre.

I would take issue with the way Bailey handles the murder of the nurse. Apart from being incredibly unpleasant, it makes little dramatic sense. It’s one of the few murders in the play which is done without any malice or revenge – it’s committed simply as a precautionary measure – so there’s no reason for it to be so extravagantly nasty. It needlessly turns Aaron, who’s unpleasant enough, into a kind of American Psycho of the ancient world.

However, it’s certainly a spirited production which never fails to look great and to do its utmost to engage the audience. My main problem was that some of the lead performances, while very good, never seemed to reach critical velocity. Houston starts the play with Titus obviously mentally damaged from the horrors of war but this results in what was, for me, a rather mannered, twitchy performance. He didn’t have the commanding presence the role demands which is pretty much the same for Varma who gave a fautless interpretation of the role but without ever reaching the heights. The stand-outs were Abili who certainly had the charisma and energy to do Aaron justice, and Samuel Edward-Cook who, as Demetrius, was a palpably dangerous force encapsulating the worst excesses of masculinity.

Continues at Shakespeare’s Globe, Bankside, London until July 13.

For more information and tickets click here.