FringeReview UK 2023
One of the Globe’s most lucid recent productions; and the most consistently-realised aesthetic. It knows what it is: a stunningly thought-through, musically inspired production.
Composer Jasmin Kent Rodgman, Song Writers Liv Morris and George Heyworth. Musicians: Composer & Sound Designer Musical Director Harpsichord and Percussion Fred Thomas, Cello Francesca Ter-Berg, Oboe Uchenna Ngwe, Trombone Hilary Belsey.
Director Jude Christian, Co-Designed by Rosie Elnile & Grace Venning, Assistant Director Indiana Lown-Collins, Choreographer Arielle Smith, Lighting Designer Ali Hunter.
Costume Supervisor Sian Harris, Globe Associate – Text Giles Block, Globe Associate – Movement Glynn MacDonald, Head of Voice Tess Dignan, Seasonal Voice Coach Katherine Heath, Candle Consultant Matt Haskins. Casting Becky Paris.
Till April 15th
Titus Andronicus the Musical? Not quite, but beyond the ominous atmospherics of composer/harpsichordist and percussionist Fred Thomas, with cello and trombone, the songs of Liv Morris and George Heyworth at the start and end of each half of the show almost upstage early Shakespeare, in this production directed by Jude Christian.
Even by the Globe’s standards (Henry VIII last year for instance) these are nailingly memorable melodies and lyrics, shaping the whole ten-women ensemble playing more than a bit like Six. With some lucking out as cannibal Henrys.
So after some fourth-wall business, from the litanic “men killing men killing men killing men killing women… children… clowns” the audience is exhorted to feel relieved after, “to get back to your terrible lives….” with meanwhile ‘”torture porn, but more artistic” and through a stunning “Lavinia of the pretty hands” (a numbing passacaglia) to a Mrs Rabbit eating her young through to “the moral of the story is, everyone dies” (importantly not true) these songs frame an upbeat show-feel, overriding some elements – crucially not all. Christian makes powerful decisions: playing key moments agonisingly straight: once with a shake of a head.
From Lucy Bailey’s 2006 (revived 2013) Globe gore-text Titus through to Blanche McIntyre’s 2017 RSC gore/relevance/fun, there’s been a shift from playing it to the blood and framing for a killer-clown now. And Shakespeare added that key fly-killing scene after the Quartos: maturity underscored batshit humour, though adding to racist tropes by justifying the fly’s colour.
That fluid ensemble feel works throughout, with Rosie Elnile’s and Grace Venning’s set a gorgeous marble-floored affair, Roman Wanamaker pillars emphasised, and a kitchen behind with a steel table wheeled out with knives. And famously, a lot of candles, lit and …. a bit snuffed. Costumes are cadmium-red, mint green and lemon-yellow overalls; though there’s no consistent coding you get used to identity swiftly.
And the fact that everyone’s enunciation is so clear, everything so tightly blocked and characterised with physical farce, makes this one of the Globe’s most lucid recent productions; and the most consistently-realised aesthetic. Unlike a few productions last year, it knows what it is.
This group-feel emphasises how Roman cultural violence eats the state’s children as heroic Titus (Katy Stephens) after ten years’ fighting refuses the imperial crown so gets forced to choose between the late emperor’s two sons to keep peace: decent Bassianus (Beau Holland’s first role, but wait for her others) who loves Titus’ daughter Lavinia; and elder more rightful but wholly wrong Saturninus (Lucy McCormick) oozing Neronic corruption from the get-go, snakily sibilant, and making use of the balcony (a bit underused these days). Oh and Titus not showing mercy to captured Goth queen Tamora (Kirsten Foster) full of duplicitous ire and slinky persuasion. She loses her eldest son (Alarbus, in Georgia-Mae Myers’ first role), marries Saturnius and quietly swears vengeance.
So filicide, rape, mutilation, cannibalism pile up in the famous beheading of candles, snuffed out as their holders move offstage. That table torturing candles ought to spawn a protest society. There’s a Black & Decker; finally a blender whirrs all raspberry pink for that pie moment.
Stephens doesn’t flinch from Titus’ own mad moments of casually killing a son for pleading a cause Titus late accepts. So murdered Mutius blinks into surviving sulky son Lucius (Daneka Etchells), someone who in Etchells’ reluctant Michael Correleone manner steps aside from violence for a bit just to bring an invading Gothic host to Rome.
The very sameness and evenness might make you struggle initially with identifying some characters, but this is the point. By the time we get to Aaron (Tibong Tanji indisposed, a superb more-than-read-in from Sophia Mercer gets rousing cheers) the sheer engine of violence is merely gear-shifted. Aaron tames brawling Goth-bros Chiron (Mei Mei MacLeod) and Demetrius (Mia Selway), both in red (Tamora’s in mint-green) in a deliciously boppy double-act to perpetrate horrors.
It’s where Beau Holland rolls about in a pit as simultaneously two luckless sons of Titus – Quintus and Martius – discovering Bassianus’ body and getting framed. Holland is a delight and keeps returning as the funniest actor in a crack comic troupe. Later she’s a Fly (buzz buzz swat), luckless Nurse and even briefer ditto Midwife. Even her truculent Clown’s not safe, and as Aemilius finally Holland plays it straight again. All this orchestrated by Aaron is in fact the only orderly thing in Rome: there’s a fearful symmetry in it till Titus goes so completely method-in-madness himself.
In fact some of the most affecting work comes from the surviving family quartet. Titus’ senator bro Marcus (Sophie Russell, a pivot of grave sanity) embraces horrifically violated Lavinia (Georgia-Mae Myers) declaring to Titus “this was thy daughter” in a chilling past-tense. It’s Titus who embraces her, yet at the last when Lavinia is offered for execution instead of – as in every production I’ve seen – prepared for the moment, desiring it even, here Myers shakes her head, clinging to life. It’s tiny but shattering and the songs live up to their name. The fly-swat scene with these actors and Etchells’ not-yet-banished Lucius, is one of the most quietly desolate. There’s other moments too where suddenly the laughter stops. That’s the brilliance of this production: it emphasises horror.
Yet it’s cautious, sane Etchells who pronounces Aaron “swart… spotted, detested, and abominable” to produce different horror in the audience, as Aaron desperately negotiates the survival of his and Tamora’s illicit new-born son. Though we have most of Aaron’s last triumphing we really miss his final ”If one good deed in all my life I did/I do repent it from my very soul.”
No-one will miss this play’s final lines (half a tedious scene), which in true recent Globe fashion are sawn off to improve on the original. Here that’s a boon. But since Marcus and Lucius (spoiler!!!) live, surely the production’s point is the racism and bloodying go on, if more soberly. That could have been more chilling, even interrupting a refrain of “everyone dies” with a nasty kick. No, psychopathy generates itself, and its descendants are waiting for you now, returning to your terrible lives. That aside, this is a stunningly thought-through, musically inspired production. Do see it.