Dominic Dromgoole clearly likes a challenge. The second play in his ‘Edges of Rome’ season is the notoriously difficult to stage Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s earliest – and goriest – tragedies.
In Titus limbs are lopped off and characters are bloodily dispatched with regularity, agony upon agony his heaped upon the eponymous general, posing considerable problems for the play’s successful staging.
For these reasons it is not often performed. Peter Brook’s 1955 production, which replaced stage blood with lengths of red ribbon, is still often cited as one of the most satisfying takes on the play – featuring a cohesiveness few contemporary productions have been able to match.
In this case, director Lucy Bailey opts to retain the gore while diluting the macabre excesses of the plot with large quantities of appropriately black humour. When Titus and his sons compete to see who will sacrifice their hand to appease the Goth queen Tamora, it turns into some sort of frantic game. And Tamora’s sons make a very poor show of disguising themselves as Furies. But Bailey pushes this device to its limit by having Titus turn up to the climactic feast – when Tamora’s sons are fed to her as the contents of a pie – doing, what appears to be, an impression of the Swedish chef from the Muppets.
Douglas Hodge makes an uneasy Titus, neither commanding enough nor sufficiently devastated when his daughter Lavinia is so brutally violated. Still, he’s backed by a strong supporting cast. Patrick Moy amuses as a decidedly camp Saturninus and Laura Rees’ performance is requistely unsettling, shaking and spasming as the mute, damaged Lavinia. The excellent Shaun Parkes is at his most striking as Aaron the villainous Moor.
Designer William Dudley’s much vaunted ‘roof’ for the Globe, influenced by the structure of velarium – the canvas awnings that were employed in Roman theatres – turns out to be a few strips of black cloth that add little to the intended funereal atmosphere. His decision to wrap the Globe’s ornate pillars in black fabric is also rather underwhelming and uninspired. Django Bates’ music, however, is genuinely haunting and the way Bailey makes full use of the yard as a performance space, regularly having the characters descend into the crowd, is innovative and exciting.
Making frequent use of two moveable wooden towers, she regularly causes the audience to scatter as musicians and actors weave amongst them. She has clearly recognized the benefits of working in as unique a space as the Globe and most of those on the ground clearly relish being part of the action.
All her innovations can’t hide the fact that Titus is a difficult and messy play – blood drenched and dramatically unwieldy – it was brave of Dromgoole to bring it out in his debut season. And, though the first half of Bailey’s production is rather sluggish, when the play hits its stride after the interval, it’s clear that his gamble has, at least partly, paid off.