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.
For Shakespeare was harsher, perhaps more accurate, in his characterization than any horror movie writer today might dare, in this, his first play. There is one minor character, the man who will finally be emperor, Lucius, who is at least a neutrally good character (albeit one who leads the Goth against his own Rome). David Sturzaker presents him here as a solid-enough prince, with enough charisma to rise to the occasion of the final, cleansing, crowd scene.
But all of the others — Goths and Romans alike — are not, in Greek style, decent characters with a fatal flaw; these are hideous characters with no redeeming features whatsoever. Douglas Hodge plays Titus Andronicus as a twitchy, disconnected, rather empty general; he is not a great man fallen, but one who truly never rose. (One wonders what the military men of Shakespeare's stage thought of this portrayal – perhaps Lucius was a sop to them.)
I found the way that he seems not to change, as his children are hideously slaughtered and bits of them dumped at his feet less than satisfactory, but perhaps this is one way to find the Bard's character. It is only in the final scenes of the madness which has a very clear method that Hodge really held the stage in the way a Titus should, however.
Geraldine Alexander as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, was also initially unconvincing. Her opening plea, as a proud barbarian in chains, begging for her son's life, lacked power (although perhaps it was first night nerves). She certainly grew into the role as the evening progressed, however, and the final scene, of what a barbarian frames as regal sang froid, as Lavinia is strangled in front of her, is spectacular acting.
Shaun Parkes as Aaron, Tamora's Moor lover, fails in radiating the evil that he surely should, but is powerful in the defence of their bastard son; Patrick Moy is appropriately Neroish as the weak and grandiose Saturninus; Laura Rees as Lavinia manages the transformation from proud Roman maid to maimed, mute victim with shocking clarity; Claire Nielson as the nurse makes a strong impression in her brief appearance – overall it is the strong ensemble performance you'd expect at the Globe.
Lucy Bailey's direction is one of the most effective efforts I've seen at the Globe. Not only is the use of sound and even smell spectacular, but so too of movement. Crowd scenes are played often from towers wheeled rapidly around the yard, keeping the groundlings on edge, moving, uncertain which way to turn. They are effectively involved in a way seldom seen in other productions.
Turning Shakespeare's Goths into Celts is effective in bringing the play home, while allowing the makeup department a lot of fun with woad. It is one final master touch in this exuberant, no-holds-barred production. This production isn't for everyone; certainly not for children, and I fear the stray tourists who will inevitably walk through those heavy doors will be in for some unpleasant shocks. But if you've got a moderately strong stomach, and want to see this play, and the Globe, at their best, then this is a production not to miss.
The production, which opened last night, will continue until August 13, in rep with Coriolanus and (later) Anthony and Cleopatra.