Titus Andronicus is a famously gory play, with at least five people fainting on the night we went to the Globe, including this reviewer from the Independent. It’s interesting that our visual effects age has diluted none of the pungency of traditional theatre (in the 1700s Samuel Johnson said it “can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience”). But for us, the most affecting aspects of Lucy Bailey’s production, returning from its rave run in 2006, are the psychological portraits of different descents into madness and despair.
Titus (William Houston) is brilliant at creating that awful recognition of a person who has taken on so much tragedy the only, perversely suitable, reaction is to laugh. After two sons are murdered and one daughter raped, he acts the mad jester, high kicking his knees as he gleefully offers up baked sons in a pie. Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia walks through her tragedies like a china doll in a horror movie and for others, like the war-like Aeron (Obi Abili), bloodshed rouses him to anger and retaliation.
Django Bates’s off-key flute and trumpet arrangements enhance the sickening proceedings on stage. A frightening sharpening of swords before yet another murder creates tension. Incense produces eerie tunnels of fog over the lights and as groundlings we enjoyed the threatening pats of rain, lobbing onto heads and coats. William Dudley’s stage design makes the most of the medieval mystery plays, the inspiration for the Globe’s original design. As in those days, carts with actors aloft demand audiences to shift and follow the action creating a dynamic experience.
The slashing of throats and skewering of bodies are technically fascinating (how do they make it look so real?) but more sickening are the mental breakdowns showing how people deal with the worst forms of tragedy. As ever, just being in the Globe space is a treat and tonight, we could have been watching the first performance in 1594, so mystical and timeless was our rain splattered night.