Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Lucy Bailey
Reviewer: Harry Stern
There’s an awful lot of blood in Shakespeare’s most viscerally Jacobean of plays and Lucy Bailey’s production doesn’t shy away from showing it in all its gory glory. Rather, it revels in the sanguinary to the extent that it has been likened to the work of the celebrated and gruesome cine-ghoul Quentin Tarantino. But this fabulously indulgent evening in the theatre is far more than a celebration of the macabre.
True, the grotesque disfigurement of the innocent Lavinia and the all too believable embodiment of bloody agony by Flora Spencer-Longhurst had a number of faint-hearted and weak-stomached members of the audience tottering white-faced towards the exits. Yet the production has far more horrifying and impotant things to say about the baseness of mankind and the moral bankruptcy of power. It offers a perspective on human cruelty and perversion rarely seen on the London stage. It is insistently awful, but that’s the very point.
And then some relief hoves into view in this deathly desert of depravity. The awfulness of man’s treatment of his fellow man is tempered by some outlandish comedy. While it may be expected that such levity may be out of place the surprise is that it feels completely in keeping with extremities of the rest of the production. It is masterfully handled by director and all cast members including the accomplished young man playing Young Lucius.
Returning from the wars Titus Andronicus is soon plunged into the febrile arena of corrupt Roman politics as his captive Queen Tamora is married to Emperor Saturninus and vows her revenge on all and sundry. Through the agency of her two morally bankrupt sons and with the wicked support of Shakespeare’s ‘other’ central black character Aaron we are treated to rape, murder if all kinds, dismemberment and, ultimately, cannibalism. All shades of humanity are depicted of which by far the most interesting is that represented by Aaron, a man who neither deserves nor seeks redemption. While as a play it lacks the soaring poetry of his other tragedies, it is unique in its own very particular qualities. Quite simply there is none other like it in the whole canon. It is a chilling examination of the frailty of the species.
It is wonderfully conceived and the audience has a rare old time, those of them that can tolerate its excesses that is. In the central rôle William Houston is magnetic as even at the very opening of the play he manages to suggest a man on the very edge, driven there by a surfeit of ritualised violence occasioned by the wars. It is no wonder that the evils perpetrated upon him push him quickly and tragically to madness. Yet his is no unhinged lunacy. It is a comprehensible, almost rational, state of mind that is only as extreme as his circumstances. As the captive Queen Indira Varma is wonderfully vengeful and earthily lustful. Beautifully spoken and horribly plausible it is a performance worth travelling a long way to see. As Aaron Obi Abili is physically intimidating and violence sits easily in his very broad shoulders. His murder of his Queen’s nurse is truly horrific. It is a shame therefore that his vocal prowess doesn’t not match that physicality. Too much of it lacks clarity, a prerequisite in the vast open spaces of the Globe’s wonderful auditorium. The rest if the cast is exemplary and the action speeds along at a compelling pace.
Design by William Dudley is sparse yet functional with the action backed by blackened caverns seemingly the Mouth of Hell which consumes all the characters. As the evening darkens the lighting adds to the atmosphere and the three hours become gradually more and more immersive as atrocity follows atrocity and human truths tumble out of word thought and deed. A great way to spend a dark, wet May evening.
Runs until 13th July