Titus Andronicus Review

“Thou art a Roman, be not barbarous”

As seems to be the case with practically all revenge dramas, the reputation of Titus Andronicus is somewhat sullied by its unpleasant subject matter, achieving more notoriety than acclaim for the manner in which it wallows in the ignoble acts of bloody death and vengeance. And, truth be told, this early play doesn’t have the full measure of Shakespeare’s later brilliance, its authorship even disputed with most academics agreeing that there is another hand involved, parts of it believed to have been written by George Peele. There’s not a great deal of complexity in character motivations or even and real insight into the dark side of human nature. For that, Titus Andronicus is surpassed by King Lear, Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth, but no-one is going to reasonably compare it against those works. What is marvellous to observe in Titus Andronicus however is the same thing that drives all revenge plays; its ability to cause discomfort in the deep primal urges it stirs up.

As such there seems to be a case, particularly in more recent interpretations, for playing up the full gothic horror of the work in a manner that is commensurate with its notoriety. It’s unlikely that there are any great depths to be discovered in Titus Andronicus, but its sheer dramatic qualities are there to be played to the hilt. That was certainly the case with Lucy Bailey’s production of the play for the Globe in 2006, which made headlines when it was reported to be so gory and shocking that it caused audience members to pass out and have to be carried out of the theatre. There’s an argument to be made that Titus Andronicus should indeed provoke such a reaction, and it’s an argument that is not based on creating shock value just for the sake of it.

Thou art a Roman, be not barbarous“, Marcus Andronicus tells Titus soon after his return from a successful campaign against the Goths, after he repudiates and in a fury slays his own son for failing to carry out his brutal command to execute the captured sons of the Goth queen Tamara. One of the two brothers seeking election as Emperor, Bassianus, also submits to the law of the land in his dispute with Saturninus, saying “Let the laws of Rome determine all“, but there are other barbarous laws that govern human nature that tend to override one’s better rational judgement. As far what this means to be Roman, well, it’s a civilisation that – as witnessed by the return of Titus – has been founded on slaughter and subjugation. It is any surprise then that violence only begets more violence?

If you are looking for any deep moral in Titus Andronicus, it’s perhaps just that and nothing more. It’s often dressed up in questions of honour, but at heart all the abominations are enacted out of a bloodthirsty desire for revenge, and for revenge heaped upon revenge. Like the Greek plays, and in particular Aeschlyus’s Oresteia trilogy, there’s a dark warning of the corruption of the soul that such crimes against nature bring with them, powerful enough forces unleashed that can destroy a great family, or bring down a great Empire. Aaron, the black-skinned lover of Queen Tamora who acts just as much out of pure malice and villainy, complicates matters slightly in Titus Andronicus, not to mention makes it problematic to approach in a modern-day production. The Globe is not a theatre to step around politically sensitive issues however, believing that Shakespeare played authentically can overcome any troubling accusations of racism or misogyny on its own terms, even in such an uncompromising a work as this.

Lucy Bailey gives us a dark and bloody Titus Andronicus on its own terms and in the tradition of the English revenge plays, with no mitigating revisionism. There are limitations to what you can do with the stage at the open-air Bankside recreation of Shakespeare’s theatre, but this production, recorded in 2014, does what it can to establish a darker tone than usual. The stage that is minimally equipped to be decorated with backdrops or props is stripped back even further, with black curtains obscuring the back of the stage and the pillars. The open roof of the round amphitheatre is even partly covered, with only enough light streaming through to be diffused by the mists of smoke to create an eerie and sinister atmosphere. A pit in the centre of the stage is used occasionally, but other than that, the action is often taken off-stage in order to take advantage of the Globe’s best asset; its audience.

There’s no escape for the audience here, they are held captive within the round, the performers working through them with raucous victory processions and celebrations, creating a highly charged atmosphere that comes across even on the Globe on Screen recording. It clearly works to the advantage of the performers who can use the audience as “extras”, playing off their unfeigned and indeed sometimes uncomfortable reactions in order to push the scenes to their limits. Bailey even goes as far as exaggerating the black humour of the piece without in any way lessening the gory horror of this extremely violent and bloodthirsty work. The humour in fact only serves as a strong contrast to make the scenes even blacker, which you might not think possible, but this production is proof of it.

This highly contrasted approach can be seen as valid in terms of how the characters themselves act. There is a kind of humour inherent in the two-faced behaviour, Tamora, for example, exhibiting graciousness only in as far as it will permit her to bring about the destruction of all Rome for having dishonoured the Goth Queen. The same method of appealing to honour is used by all the other characters on a lesser scale, albeit no less mercilessly in its uncompromising violence. A strong stomach is required for some scenes here, but the approach is entirely justified. It does sometimes seem appallingly overdone in some places, but that is part of the nature of the work, and indeed its weakness. The often omitted and horribly inappropriate speech by Marcus at his discovery of the raped Lavinia with both her hands chopped off, her tongue ripped out, spluttering gore and blood, for example, is all part of the contrast that adds to the horror, even if it still doesn’t quite work here.

Notwithstanding the evident weaknesses in the plot and the writing, the performances are all good here; the direction purposefully giving the characters an intense edge, some distinctive personality and even a measure of humanity that comes through in the humour and the horror. William Houston is particularly good as Titus, dementedly dangerous from the outset, it doesn’t take much for him to be credibly driven to extreme acts of vengeance and violence even against his own person. Matthew Needham find the best balance between the humour that masks a very unpleasant personality, but Indira Varma’s wonderfully over-the-top Tamora is perfect for the particular tone established by the Globe’s production. Less convincing is Obi Abili’s Aaron, but then any character who is as irredeemably evil as this is hard to take seriously, the role made even more difficult by the racial baggage that comes with the character. Like everything in Titus Andronicus however, this production pushes buttons by pushing to the limit, and it’s hard not to recognise that part of you is darkly fascinated by the reactions it provokes.

Globe on Screen’s Titus Andronicus is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility. The disc is region-free.

Disappointingly, the Globe on Screen productions have only been released on DVD for the last few years and that’s the case for the 2014 productions of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus. In the case of Titus Andronicus the lack of High Definition detail might be a merciful relief to the viewer with the amount of blood spurting over the stage here. In Standard Definition the video quality is nonetheless reasonably good within the limits of the NTSC encoding of a live theatre performance on an even darker stage production than usual. There’s no benefit of the daylight hours here, the image remaining highly contrasted for the whole performance, particularly with the addition of a black curtained backdrop. The image is relatively clear however and certainly good enough for standard sized screens. Anyone more used to High Definition presentations on larger screens will find that the detail isn’t all there and colours are a little oversaturated. Depending on the display device being used and the size of the screen, macroblocking, grain-shifting and instability of the encoding may also more evident, particularly when there is camera movement. There is however nothing much that is overly troubling about the image transfer.

The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The recording of the live performance is good, the dialogue never less than clear and perfectly audible. There are no radio mics used, just whatever microphones are dotted around the stage, which can make mixing rather difficult. Even when Titus relates his lines from off-stage while wandering in a state of delirium through the audience, the text can be made out fine. Music balance can also be a problem when it comes to getting the balance right, but the music here – the production benefiting from a score by no less than one of Britain’s major young jazz talent Django Bates – seems to come across particularly well. I listened to this production on headphones however, so perhaps that’s the best way to get the benefit of the whole enveloping atmosphere.

Optional white subtitles are available for hard of hearing, or should you just enjoy reading the text, which is always worth exploring. In contrast to previous releases, subtitles however are in English only with this batch of releases. On the disc itself, the only extra feature is a Cast Gallery. The enclosed booklet provides a synopsis and there’s a Q&A with Lucy Bailey on her approach and the controversy related to this production.

Titus Andronicus has had a troubled history, its rather distasteful revenge plot being regarded as something of an aberration and somewhat unworthy of Shakespeare. Despite its evident weaknesses there are however some interesting points that can be brought together and made to work, even within Shakespeare’s exploration of all the varied and wondrous aspects of human emotions and behaviour. A lot depends on the direction and Lucy Bailey’s production for the Globe certainly demands some indulgence, not to mention a strong stomach. It doesn’t however distort the intent of the play in any way, focussing on and indeed highlighting the elements that traditionally are seen as problematic, giving one pause to think again on the dramatic merits of the play and on just what Shakespeare’s intents for it might have been. Even if it were to do no more than shock its audience, the manner in which it does so is quite exceptional, and this production works fully on that level alone.


Updated: Aug 23, 2015

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