Titus Andronicus – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

Reviewer: Thom Punton

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Jude Christian

The Globe’s previous production of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s famously gratuitous gorefest, leant into the violence and viscera to the extent that there were numerous reports of members of the audience fainting. Jude Christian’s new all-female adaptation at The Globe’s intimate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse takes a markedly different approach, swapping fake blood for an altogether more symbolic representation of death and destruction. It’s not the only quirk in a knowing and irreverent interpretation that zips along, giving the audience plenty to get their teeth into.

As if to leave us in no doubt of its non-traditional motives, the production starts with a boisterously performed musical number whose lyrics are a cheeky forewarning of the subject matter and an invitation to “delight in someone else’s pain”. It’s one of four original songs by Bourgeois & Maurice that punctuate the night and is uproariously funny, a canny way to win over an audience that may have been apprehensive about three hours of doom and gloom.

Each character – including a scene-stealing fly – is accompanied by their own lit candle, which, when extinguished, marks their death. The conceit circumnavigates the question of how to convincingly fake onstage violence and in the process illustrates the fragility of human life. You find yourself fretting that in all the movement and excitement candles will be blown out by accident, and moments when the actors toy with this tension are electric.

A war-ravaged Titus, still in thrall to the mindset of “kill or be killed”, sets the wheels of tragedy in motion by killing the eldest son of Tamora, the captured queen of the Goths, brutally lopping off the candle’s head with a tabletop guillotine. Whilst she begins as a docile bride to the newly appointed emperor Saturninus, Kirsten Foster’s Tamora flips suddenly into a spiteful tyrant, vowing to “massacre them all”. The spiral into revenge-seeking madness is mirrored by Katy Stephens’ at first humble Titus. Both grow in charisma and depth as the play goes on. Saturninus, played by a commanding Lucy McCormick as a slimy manchild, remains immature, led by worldly goals of political power.

Having acknowledged the ridiculousness of the play in the opening song, the scene is set for more knowing comic relief, and it verges delightfully on mockery at points. The play’s least believable set piece where two of Titus’ sons fall one by one into a hole in the woods is transformed into its funniest by Beau Holland who, channelling Beckett, darts across the stage, playing both sons, using their candles to create an absurd comic puppet show.

The serious parts are also excellently acted, most impressively so when Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, who is being dragged off by Tamora’s sons, is begging Tamora for mercy. The intense desperation conveyed by Georgia-Mae Myers’ Lavinia is heartrending, to the extent that it seems as if Tamora is truly torn here, tempted to relent to the pleas for womanly sympathy. It would be so easy to end Lavinia’s suffering by snuffing out the candle. But mention of her nemesis strengthens Tamora’s resolve for revenge.

As each character’s flame goes out, there’s a moment when they are still there in the ghostly form of their actor, now returned to the theatrical liminal space. Sometimes these ghosts look on shocked as their waxy body is pummelled, drilled or chopped to pieces. Mostly, the characters cease to be as soon as their flame goes out, which means that any further violence enacted is not shown as experienced pain. Rather, it highlights the cold-bloodedness of the murderers mutilating the wax corpses.

It might be that we don’t feel the characters’ pain as viscerally in not seeing them writhe and bleed, but it shifts the focus to the stark shock of the moment of death and the surrounding anguish. It’s a riveting spectacle, and the bold originality of Jude Christian’s directorial vision is truly admirable.

Runs until 15 April 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Bold candlelit spectacle

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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