Globe On Screen's Titus Andronicus blends horror and humour

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is not frequently performed, and has a famously controversial history with questions over its authorship and concerns with its violence. However, Shakespeare’s Globe in London is making its recent and well-received 2014 production available for viewing at selected cinemas in Australia, New Zealand and various other international locations. This is one of several productions featuring in the Globe On Screen initiative (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and The Comedy of Errors are to follow).
If you heard the hype surrounding this production of Titus, you may have heard rumours of spectators fainting from the sheer horror. Fair warning: production spoilers and descriptions of violence will follow in this post.
I attended the Sydney screening of Titus this weekend, and was disappointed to see an almost-empty cinema, especially because this is a superb production, and the filming does much to capture the essence of a live theatre performance.
Director Lucy Bailey produces an ominous aesthetic before the performance even begins. The Globe is draped in black; the sky is partially hidden by funereal black drapes, while the back of the stage and even the columns are shrouded in black. This means that the production cannot make use of the gallery space above, which was a strange choice, but they replace this by making extensive use of the audience space. Large towers are wheeled about the groundlings’ space, giving actors an additional platform and presumably creating a sense that the spectators are more involved in the action as they are forced to shuffle around the path of the towers and share the same space as the wild, noisy Goths and Romans. And as with many Globe productions, the cast frequently enter and exit via the spectator doors. To add to this gloomy and foreboding atmosphere, I noticed incense smoking at the back of the stage. This, of course, is where it becomes difficult for a recording to capture the mood established in a live theatre performance.
The production sticks relatively closely to the text and makes no significant alterations. The opening act of Titus is notoriously difficult to stage with some textual problems possibly drawn from authorial revision and/or collaboration (the play being the work of William Shakespeare and George Peele. Consensus is now fairly widespread on this point. For more on this see Brian Vickers’ Shakespeare, Co-Author). This gives a slightly interrupted feel to the rituals and ceremonies (burial, sacrifice, marriage) that take centrestage in this opening act.
The play begins with the return of Titus from war with the Goths, bringing several sons home in coffins. Meanwhile, the Emperor has died and leaves his two sons – Saturninus and Bassianus – vying for the empery. The people, though, elect Titus as a candidate, which he quickly turns down in favour of Saturninus, the eldest son, thereby demonstrating both his outdated sense of tradition and his narrow-mindedness, both of which will serve him badly in the violent and unstable political climate. William Houston plays Titus with a fragility that very much enriched his character. From the beginning Titus’ grip on sanity seems tenuous, which makes the trajectory of the narrative far more comprehensible. Houston is frequently wild-eyed, his voice jumping into high-pitched instability. As his revenge plots become more violent and more insane, he takes it less seriously, making it easier for the audience to laugh. 
Emperor Saturninus is played delightfully by Matthew Needham as a spoiled child: impulsive, ignorant and frequently pouting. Needham’s performance gestures at Saturninus’ vulnerability, making his marriage to the powerful and ambitious Tamora all the more interesting and generating a hilarious contrast between this unexpected couple. Needham produces much-needed humour from Saturninus, making a pathetic, cowardly character one of the most interesting and enjoyable of the ensemble.
Coming home with Titus are his prisoners: Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her sons and her lover, Aaron the Moor. The production colour-codes the Goths with a vibrant purple, and Tamora’s sons sport a range of purple tattoos on their faces and chests. Many reviews have already noted Indira Varma’s spectacular performance as Tamora, and I can only concur. Varma makes a cold and calculating character immensely likeable (this is a character, after all, who sends her newborn son to be slaughtered on account of his resembling the father, Aaron). Varma’s Tamora vacillates easily between swearing to find a time to ‘massacre them all’ while sweetly reconciling the Andronici with the new-made emperor. Her sons, Chiron (Brian Martin) and Demetrius (Samuel Edward-Cook), who perform perhaps the most despicable of crimes in this play, are also given time to develop a humorous rapport with the audience.
In general, Bailey’s production is characterised by its highly effective use of comedy. Titus Andronicus is so excessively violent that it borders on the absurd or the ridiculous, and Bailey works this boundary almost perfectly. The production tempers the excessive nature of the play with self-aware theatricality (especially on the parts of Titus, Tamora and Aaron) and of course, humour. The play actively generates and sustains comedy (even in the darkest and most unexpected moments), giving the production life and drawing in the audience. When Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), draped in a net by Chiron and Demetrius (quite literally demonstrating Lavinia’s position as the ‘dainty doe’ hunted by the brothers for sport), begs Tamora to kill her rather than let her be raped, Tamora’s bored response actually manages at one point to draw laughter from its audience. 
The production’s comedy is achieved through the impeccable performances (particularly of Titus and Saturninus, Tamora and the Goth brothers) but also through the addition of new characters. ‘Bacchus’ (David Shaw-Parker) is brought on at several moments throughout to banter with the audience and spill wine on unsuspecting spectators. As his name and his crown of grapes suggests, he revels not in blood but in wine, and he uses modern English to joke with the spectators. Similarly, Steffan Donnelly as the Clown produces beautiful comedy with his use of two dead pigeons.
However, the play also deliberately sacrifices its comic figures. The production points to the fine line between revelry and chaotic violence, as the Goth-dominated Rome becomes riotous, with the actors chanting modern songs and wearing modern-esque clothing (almost like a soccer crowd run mad). Bacchus is eventually beaten to death and paraded by the Goths, while the Clown’s neck is unceremoniously snapped by Chiron and Demetrius. These deliberate and violent ends to the production’s main clown figures are unsettling for the laughing audience; it interestingly complicates the relationship between comedy and violent tragedy.
The play never shies away from the violent, but nor did it seem to push beyond what the play requires. It handles the violence with seamless choreography. It is difficult to comment on the impact of the stage violence, as a filmed recording cannot capture the claustrophobic feeling of an enclosed Globe space contained by black cloth, or the smoky incense smell, nor the sight of very well-choreographed violent acts. The production draws all it can from the surreal moment when Lavinia carries her father’s severed hand in her bloody mouth, and from the accidental cannibalism when Tamora tucks into an ominously meaty pie (containing the bodies of her sons). Spencer-Longhurst not only captures the horrendous violence done to Lavinia’s body, but in her continuing post-trauma spasms throughout the performance, silently indicates a sense of the violence of emotional and mental trauma. One of the most shocking moments was another instance of violence done to women: Aaron’s revolting impaling of the Nurse upon his sword. Not technically scripted to be done in this way (we know he compares killing her to spitting a pig), this is violence compounded by shock and unnecessary excess. 
Bailey’s production also handles the pit scene rather differently. The play famously includes a bloody pit or ‘subtle hole’, which stands as an onstage visible metaphor for the offstage rape of Lavinia. Into this hole the Goth brothers throw Bassianus’ body; he is later joined by Quintus and Martius (Titus' sons), who are tricked by Aaron. Shakespeare and Peele undoubtedly meant to use the trapdoor for this business, but Bailey doesn’t use the trapdoor at all in this scene, instead creating a pit in the audience space at the front of the stage using unfurled black netting to catch the actors. This seemed largely ineffective to me: first, it makes the entire contents of the pit visible to the spectator which goes against the sense implied in the text and spoils the horror of the unseen (a necessary moment in Titus where less is more). Second, it means that for most of the scene the references to the ‘pit’ do not make sense, because it has not yet been set up. 
The Globe’s Titus Andronicus is a spectacular and highly enjoyable production that maintains an effortless sense of energy and pace throughout, maximising gore and humour through a superb cast and effective design. It raises interesting questions about theatricality, violence and comedy, about the power of female voices in this kind of landscape, and about the awkward sense of collusion that the audience may feel in watching (and laughing at) such a production.