Saturday 3 May 2014

Theatre review: Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare's Globe)

This time last year I'd yet to see a production of Titus Andronicus, but the popularity of Shakespeare plays really does seem to go in cycles, and now I've notched up my third. Lucy Bailey's production at the Globe is in fact a revival of a hit version from 2006, and sees William Houston take on the titular role of the Roman general whose deeds in battle are so impressive, he's tasked with choosing the next Emperor out of a pair of rival brothers. He gives the laurel wreath to Saturninus (Matthew Needham) but the Andronicus family's favour with the ruler is short-lived: Titus' daughter Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) rejects Saturninus' proposal in favour of his brother, and instead the new Emperor marries Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Indira Varma,) whose eldest son Titus just sacrificed. Suddenly Titus' greatest enemy is the most powerful woman in Rome.

Tamora decides to strike against his children, and begins by letting her sons Chiron (Brian Martin) and Demetrius (Samuel Edward-Cook) have their way with Lavinia in the most brutal fashion.

Titus Andronicus' unpopularity comes, surely, from it being less impressive as literature than later Shakespeare plays. It can't be because of how it works on stage, as it's a pretty effective piece of populist theatre even in a production that takes a lot of wrong steps, like this one does. Abusing the groundlings is pretty much a Globe tradition but this production takes it to a new level - processions through the yard regularly require the standing audience to move out of the way, especially when two large platforms are wheeled around. It's fun when done a couple of times but here it's pretty relentless, and even looking down from the middle gallery I found it distracting - how anyone standing would have been able to follow the story, when every couple of minutes a steward made them move out of the way, I don't know. Certainly, although the yard always hosts a few teenagers who clearly don't want to be there, I saw a much bigger number than usual giving up and playing games on their phones rather than watch the performance. I have friends who are committed groundlings, for whom the occasional discomfort is all part of the fun, but even their patience was tested by this staging.

All this business doesn't help with the pacing at all, meaning as with many of Lucy Bailey's productions, this runs a lot longer than the play usually does, and it takes a while to really embrace how bonkers the play is, although it does eventually get there. After the interval things start to take off a bit more, and Houston's Titus, who's been visibly losing it from his first appearance, really lets rip.

And there's a good cast supporting him - Needham's played enough deranged Roman Emperors now he must be starting to think casting agents are trying to send him a message, but he is good at it after all and gives Saturninus a degree of flounce and an obvious tendency to defer to his wife. This isn't even Needham's first Roman Emperor in this play, as he was in last year's RSC production as Titus' son Lucius. That role goes now to a steely Dyfan Dwyfor, whose single-mindedness never sees him succumb to the apparently infectious lunacy. Varma has a lot of fun bringing out the playful side of Tamora's deceptions, fluttering sweetly to the characters then turning gleefully to the audience to reveal her true plans; and Obi Abili takes full advantage of the way the lines about Aaron's blackness are uncomfortable to a modern audience. Having Nicholas Karimi wander round topless in fake tattoos as Lucius' main Goth ally is no hardship either.

The publicity has mentioned audience members fainting at the gore, which is a bit disingenuous - there's a always a few groundlings who faint, and here they're also crushed by the regular moving around, and have smoke and incense regularly pumped right at them. William Dudley's design has covered the Globe's open roof with black banners, so these doesn't even disperse as quickly as they normally might. And indeed the fainting began long before the claret started flying around. There are moments when the production really works but I still had the feeling it wasn't as good as it could have been. Especially on the way out when Andy, who enjoyed it, said "I've seen a good production of Titus Andronicus now, so I don't feel like I ever need to see it again." Based on my own previous experience of the play, I can't help thinking that if he really had seen a good production of it, he'd actually have already wanted more.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 13th of July at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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