London in the January of 1594 was a dark place. Two years of cold weather and small harvests had left the poor anxious and restless. The ageing Gloriana, who refused to even think about who might follow her, sowed political anxiety among the great and the good - heads tended to roll around succession crises. The national euphoria of the defeat of the Armada seemed a distant memory. Plague threatened, and would soon close the theatres.
The Globe's new production of Titus Andronicus — a text as gloomy, and gory, as any Shakespeare produced — plays up those elements. The theatre is closed in, almost suffocated with black wrappings that extend across the sky, blocking out the spring evening sunshine and producing a gloom that must have been close to a January afternoon of 1594. Incense redolent of blood sacrifice chokes this closed-in space. It is indeed as dismal a day as ere I saw.
Yet this is also a production that has something of the feel of a modern horror movie. Every one of the many bloody scenes of Titus Andronicus is played for full dramatic, gut-wrenching effect. Yet what is amazing about this is that nothing is electronic - all of the sounds are produced by using more or less natural materials. The composer Django Bates says that a range of traditional horns (many of which are displayed to the audience), "lumps of metal, metres of birch-wrapped tubing, circular pots with long wire tails, a saw, some bendy sticks, metal files" are his instruments.
This could all too easily, for an audience reared on animatronics and fancy 3D, have been an embarrassingly amateurish disaster, but instead the gory scenes are this production's triumph. I fear the sight of Demetrius and Chiron being treated like the animals in an abbatoir - strung up by the heels, their throats almost casually cut, to the accompaniment of blood-chilling sounds — will remain in my head for some time. Were these characters with which we had any sympathy it would be almost unbearable (and indeed for some perhaps it was - there were a few green faces around me), but Shakespeare has of course made sure by this point that these two - who raped and hideously mutilated Lavinia - will not be mourned.