Given how overworked the established Shakespeare canon is it’s little wonder that there is strong demand for fresh plays by the Bard. The chances of genuinely ‘new’ work appearing as re of course slim-even the most eccentric ‘anti-Stratfordian’ concedes that the author of Hamlet, Much Ado et al, whoever she or he may be have been, must have died around 400 years ago- but there is still a possibility that a ‘lost’play (Love’s Labour’s Won, Cardenio) will one day turn up.
Until then, we will have to content ourselves with those rare and miraculous stagings that seem to offer up a new Shakespeare play using only the words of an old and already familiar text. Lucy Bailey’s dazzlingly dark production of Titus Andronicus had precisely this revelatory quality of a discovery, helping to rehabilitate a play that, through theatrical neglect and critical disdain, has largely been lost to the repertoire since Shakespeare’s Day.
Clearly written under the influence of Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and other gory Senecan extravaganzas, Titus was an immediate hit with audiences when it first produced in 1594. It never achieved the same vogue with writers and critics, however T.S. Eliot memorably dismissed it as one of ‘the stupidest nd most uninspired plays ever written.’ Because of continuing scholarly contempt modern audiences have rarely had a chance to judge the works stage qualities for themselves. Peter Brook’s highly stylised production in Stratford in 1955 was warmly acclaimed but arguably misrepresented the true nature of the play by abstracting and aestheticising its visceral horror, substituting ribbons for blood and cutting around 700 lines from the original text. Bailey’s production at the Globe was much less squeamish about the brutality and bloodthirsty vengefulness of the play’s world: when in the dying moments Titus’ son Lucius exacts revenge on Saturninus by twisting his head and his break, the sound of cracking bones rang out form the stage with the clarity of a pistol shot. You could see the spectators gathered near the actors recoil in horror, momentarily uncertain as to whether what they had just witnessed mightn’t actually have been the real thing rarely than merely a clever illusion.
William Dudlely’s innovative stage design created an ideal setting for this most unrelentingly savage and morally bleak of all Shakespeare’s plays. The whole of the stage area, including the Globe’s distinctive columns, was wrapped, Christo fashion, in a funereal black so that the action was performed against a solid background of enveloping, claustrophobic darkness. A dark awning strung high over the audience’s heads in the pit meant that even the natural light illuminating the spectacle arrived though a black filter.
Dudley borrowed the idea for this temporary ‘roof’ from the velarium, a cooling system consisting of a canvas-covered rope structure with a hole in the centre, used in the Roman Colosseum. In truth, this web-like canopy wasn’t the only aspect of the production reminiscent of the Colosseum, the first century AD home of gladiatorial combats. Bailey extended the normal playing space and in effect redefined the whole area of the theatre – not just the stage but also the standing area in front of it- as an area for a particularly bloody kind of gladiatorial tournament involving the spectators themselves. The audience in the Globe’s ‘wooden O’ stand where, in the corresponding part of the Colosseum, the gladiators would have wielded their weapons; consequently the audience had the sense not so much of watching a spectacle at the Colosseum as of participating in one. In the opening scene the deceased emperor’s sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, made their bids for the succession form moving towers which careered at high speed through the crowd, causing spectators to scatter before them, while throughout the performances the violence continually juddered giddily out form the stage into the pit.
Readers over the centuries have often found Titus’s distinctive blend of knockabout humour and extreme suffering hard to take seriously. One 18th-centrury editor observed jokily of its climatic sequence, when the hero bakes his great enemy Tamora’s sons in a pie and serves them up to her for dinner, that ‘justice and cookery go hand in hand.’ In performances, these apparently incongruous qualities can be reconciled: tone is all. Here again Bailey succeeded by assembling a cast capable of playing the whole thing simultaneously as farce and as high tragedy. There was plenty of painfully visceral humour: for instance, Douglas Hodge’s wonderfully moving Titus trying to shoot a bow after cutting off one of his hands, or in that notorious final scene, transformed into a kind of antic TV chef and stuffing Tamora’s son’s mouths will apples preparatory to dishing them up to their mother. Geraldine Alexander and Shaun Parkes were outstanding as the wittily mischievous Goth queen and the self-consciously villainous Aaron, while Laura Rees injected a note of luminous pathos into proceedings as the mutilated Lavinia.
It is perhaps worth adding that the spectators made an important contribution to achieving this difficult tonal balance, now gasping in horror, now laughing uproarious. Some contemporary critics complain about Globe audience’s capacity to find humour in the darkest places, but it’s surely a trait that – like so much else that happens at this reconstruction Elizabethan playhouse – illuminates the habits of mind of the spectators for whom Shakespeare first wrote his plays.
The most fondly regarded stage direction in the Shakespeare canon is The Winter’s Tale’s ‘Exit pursued by a bear’. If a line with such grisly implications for the future of poor loyal Antigonus can find a place in spectators’ hearts, now that Bailey and her team have put the play so firmly back on the theatrical map its surely only a matter of time before Titus’s own classic stage direction – ‘Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand ‘-achieves a comparable currency. Expect to start finding it lovingly reproduced on stationery and other highly desirable gift item in the Globe shop soon. Globe audiences will know how to take the joke.
This article first appeared in Around the Globe, Issue 34 [Autumn, 2006].
Robert Shore is a freelance critic and author of Bang in the Middle.
Titus Andronicus will be at the Globe from 24 April. For more information and tickets please visit our website.