Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“It’s a story of men killing men killing men killing women killing men killing men killing men killing children killing men killing men killing men killing clowns killing men killing men killing men killing flies” crooned the pyjama-clad, all-female-identifying company of the Globe’s Titus Andronicus. The promise of this opening number – a murder ballad, one of four composed specially by George Heyworth and Liv Morris for this production, but performed with Andrews Sisters smiles and shimmies – was that, after the ensuing bloodbath, “you’ll feel better about your terrible lives.” It’s sobering that, while the songwriters couldn’t have known the specific kinds of awfulness that would be happening in the UK during the production’s run (food shortages, an energy crisis, the national broadcaster disciplining its sports presenters for daring to be even vaguely critical of the government), they could still anticipate the mood of a country which is feeling the resurgence of fascism and the economic impact of Brexit so acutely. Life, this production of Titus Andronicus wanted to tell us, is shit, and then you die. And so, you might as well laugh at it.

The set, designed by Rosie Elnile and Grace Venning, recalled the grand guignol horror comedy of Propeller’s Rose Rage/Richard III, but with a distinctly Sam Wanamaker twist. Against a white backdrop and acrylic floor stood two large buckets, above each of which hung a frame for making candles (my expertise doesn’t extend to the technical terms for any of this), connected by a pulley system. A set of tracks in the stage allowed a large cart with various candle-making – or trimming – instruments to be trundled onto the stage. This wax factory was the context for director Jude Christian’s conceit for a bloodless Titus, in which each member of the company carried with them a single candle, given to them when they entered the stage by a technician (the only male-presenting people who appeared onstage) from the stage right frame. As each character died, they exited stage right, dipping the empty frame on that side into the wax bucket, which seemed to be gradually forming new candles around a mould. The circle of life was rendered as the mechanics of candle-making, the candles burning down and leftover wax remoulded into new candles on a quasi-industrial scale.

The candle each cast member carried became their life, and by containing life essence within the thinginess of candles, the production stressed both fragility – the ease with which a candle could be blown out, as Titus (Katy Stephens) did to Lavinia’s (Georgia-Mae Myers), despite her frantic and sad shaking of her head – and also the inhumanity of killing. Wax candles were lopped, chopped, diced, burned with a blow-torch and put into a food processor (Sophie Russell’s Marcus with wide eyes and a quietly psychotic smile as she stood over the blender), minced, stamped upon and thrown aside. With the cast all wearing pyjamas in different pastel colours (contributing to the classic stylings of the songs), the production was able to indulge in a playfulness with its objects that emerged from the framing device, a story told by these women – girls, rather – in the spirit of bedtime horror stories, in which horrific violence could be enacted creatively and hilariously upon objects that accrued significance but never humanity.

The production’s tone was best summed up in the bravura performance of Beau Holland, who took on some eight characters, almost all of whom were quickly and summarily dispatched, in a running joke that got faster and funnier as the production went on and Holland had to dash ever faster around the tiring house to re-emerge as her latest character. She began as Bassianus, a dignified and somewhat resigned foil to his entertainingly cartoonish brother Saturninus (understudied by Jenni Maitland at this performance); following Bassianus’s murder, Holland played both Quintus and Martius in a bravura piece of doubling, throwing her candles down into the “pit” from atop the candle-making trolley, and flipping back and forth between the contorted limbs of one brother and the earnest rescue attempts of the other, huffing and puffing as she psyched herself up to keep the double-single-act going. Her next role was as the Fly, clinging onto the wall and then buzzing around the stage messing up Marcus and Titus’s hair, until Marcus petulantly snuffed out her candle. Before Holland could leave the stage, though, Titus began inveighing against Marcus for daring to kill the fly, at which Holland remained onstage, cheered by the support, standing alongside Titus and pointing (J’accuse!) at Marcus – until Marcus changed Titus’s mind, and a crestfallen Holland left the stage, not even waiting to see Titus abuse the remnants of the candle. Holland later appeared as the Nurse, dispatched by Aaron (covered by an on-book Sophie Mercell), then ran around fast to appear as the Midwife just in time to be instantly killed the second she appeared. Her Clown, with two invisible pigeons for whom she cooed, was oblivious and innocent, and massacred by a gleeful Tamora (Kirsten Foster), who took station behind the trolley to oversee the grinding of the Clown’s candle, and Holland was back in the scene as Aemilius – who made it to the end, almost – before the memory of the Clown had faded. Holland’s deadpan delivery of the fast changes was a joy throughout, the actor resigned to the Groundhog Day-like inevitability of each dispatch, but also defined the vocabulary for this production’s comic objectification of the banality of death.

This reorientation of the ethics and seriousness of killing also had a seismic effect on the production’s sympathies, which seemed from the start to be with no-one so much as Tamora. The pyjama-party framing allowed several of the cast to play up the humorous potential in their roles: Daneka Etchells was bathetically petulant as Mutius and Lucius, muttering Lucius’s apologies to Saturninus rebelliously; Russell’s Marcus was deliberately drained of colour and inflection as a parodically detached senator (which worked wonders for his shell-shocked reaction to Lavinia’s mutilated appearance); Chiron (Mei Mei MacLeod) and Demetrius (Mia Selway) were lairy London boys trying to be bigger than their years (and suddenly shockingly vulnerable and scared when facing their own deaths). But Stephens played Titus dead straight, her voice booming out in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with classical heft, and Tamora was Titus’s victim. Tamora pleaded sincerely for Alarbus (Myers) to be saved, and her devastation was written across her face and body as she knelt, cried out, gasped in horror, and wept. She seemed to be the protagonist of the ensuing revenge tragedy, and the ballad that opened the second half reinforced this: this ballad told the story of Mrs. Rabbit, who ate her own children to prevent them from being devoured by a fox, and the ballad worked alongside Foster’s initially emotional performance to frame her as a woman given no choice. While the production didn’t shy away from her cold dismissal of Lavinia’s pleas – she knelt down before Lavinia, took the girl’s face in her hands, and explained to her patronisingly but almost kindly what needed to happen – or her later delight in killing the Clown and tormenting Titus, the ballad framed this within a narrative of women needing to protect themselves within a violently patriarchal society. During the production’s climactic violence, following her initial shock at learning what was in the pie she was eating, she stood up, looked Titus in the eye, and shovelled more of the pie into her mouth, becoming Mrs. Rabbit and protecting what was left of her own children inside herself.

Foster had more fun with Tamora in relation to Saturninus. Maitland was inspired casting (she was off-book and fully integrated into the song and dance routines, implying she was a longer-term replacement for Lucy McCormick), using her comparatively short stature to comic effect, such as forcing the tall Lavinia to stoop to her own height, or having her head plunged into Foster’s bosom as Tamora told Satuninus to “bury all thy fear in my devices”. Saturninus’s Lord Farquhard energy made him a petulant, unpredictable figure, who heckled Bassianus while his brother gave his election speech, and who took every opportunity to speak down on others from aloft. But he was also lazy, feckless, and controlled by Tamora, who smiled more as the production went on and as she became more confident. But this fun also coincided with the raising of the stakes. She clearly loved Chiron and Demetrius, touching them frequently and smiling upon them, in ways that made visible what she still had to lose. When Chiron and Demetrius, wearing garish face make-up as Rape and Murder, were left alone with Titus, they suddenly seemed very young indeed. The chandeliers had all been lowered to the stage, creating obstacles around which the actors had to move, and Chiron and Demetrius suddenly found themselves backed into a corner as a quiet Marcus emerged, and then Lavinia, now looking powerful, advanced upon them, leaving the two gibbering with fear, rendered as children.

The rebalancing of sympathies to allow Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius to be human, without mitigating their awful deeds, had a similarly interesting effect on the Andronici. As a participant in the framing device, Stephens was as wacky and entertaining as the others, but once in character as Titus, she was the play’s ambiguous antihero. Crystal clear in his speech, formal and immovable in his  pronouncements, and contemptuous of those who questioned his authority, Titus was formidable; where Saturninus was the spoiled voice of male entitlement, Titus was its embodied realization. Everyone seemed at least a little bit scared of him, as if he was the only grown-up surrounded by children. This made it all the more unnerving as Stephens started letting smiles play across Titus’s face, beginning with the laughter that broke out as she looked upon Lavinia, which infected Lucius, Marcus, and even Lavinia too. It was from this point that Titus abandoned the pretence of representing anything other than the absurdity of this play’s world – like Tamora, Titus embraced the twisted, fatalistic game they were all playing, and Stephens even began improvising (mocking Russell when, tasked with throwing an orange through the tiring house doors as one of the arrows heading to Saturninus’s court, Russell missed and hit the frame; or when Titus accidentally let a candle fall and go out while setting up for the final banquet, prompting Stephens to relight the candle, smile ghoulishly at the audience, and reassure us ‘All alive again . . . to be killed!’). However much people tried to survive in this world on civilised terms, everyone eventually started playing the game.

The only characters who this wasn’t especially true of were Lavinia and Aaron. Lavinia’s manhandling offstage by Chiron and Demetrius was one of the moments allowed to land most seriously, Lavinia fighting desperately to get away from the boys; when she appeared, her hands were stumps of wet wax, turning her into a living candle; the references to Lavinia having been “trimmed” took on ugly literalness in the context of the candle metaphors. Lavinia had moments of laughter with her father, or of macabre delight in the punishment of Chiron and Demetrius (she handled the blender into which their blow-torched wicks were put), but the emphasis was predominantly her emotional trauma as she stood, gagging and crying. To reveal her killers, she grabbed a discarded candle wick and scrawled directly onto the floor, the production pausing to give her time to do so in full. And while she seemed to embrace her own death at the production’s close, walking around the table at which Tamora and Saturninus sat to meet her father, she tried to dissuade him from killing her.

Lavinia thus was one of the production’s true victims; so, too, was Aaron’s baby. The production’s emphasis on Aaron was inevitably curtailed somewhat by being read; while Mercell did superlative work integrating herself into the blocking, the literal peripherality of this more static (and non-pyjamaed) version of Aaron (coupled with Mercell absenting herself for the song and dance numbers) meant that she was less present than Kibong Tanji’s planned performancepresumably would have been. But in some ways, Aaron’s absence from the more deliberately parodic bits of the production gave him a sense of being aloof, above the nonsense of others, more dignified and in control. Aaron delighted in his evil, Mercell grinning at the audience during her asides, and making quick, malicious decisions. Mercell was particularly chilling when reciting Aaron’s long litany of misdeeds to a quietly appalled Lucius. But he was also human: having decided to kill his child, he kneeled in front of it, held the knife, and paused for a long time, before lowering the knife. The baby was a stump of a candle, the most vulnerable of flames, and Aaron cradled that child with even more care than one might expect, to prevent the flame being accidentally extinguished. The vulnerability of the candles underpinned the striking emphasis placed on the visual signifier of the little Black baby.

The final scene brought together all of the production’s conceits in a beautifully orchestrated medley of violence. Following Titus’s murder of Lavinia and his and Tamora’s tussle over the pie, a melee began in which not only were the candles of Tamora, Titus, and Saturninus all snuffed out, but so too were those of Lucius, Marcus, Aemilius – Holland hilariously screaming “No!” as she faced her eighth on-stage death of the performance – and everyone else onstage; as the candles were blown out, smashed, thrown down, or otherwise deprived of their purpose, the cast began their final song and also reached out to the onstage candles, the lowered chandeliers, quickly snuffing out all of the lights except one – the stub of a candle that represented Aaron’s child. And around that candle, as they sang “Rome’s burning – Good!” the women danced a bacchanal, an orgiastic celebration of death, a final defiance of life in the embrace of nothingness – until, on the final word, they bent down and blew out that final character together. There was to be no flicker of hope for the future, no reprieve, just all of the lights going out – so that we could go home and feel better about our terrible lives.

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