I saw The Globe’s new production of Titus Andronicus tonight, and it was an amazing experience.
For those who haven’t been, the theatre is a reproduction of the original playhouse of Shakespeare’s 16th century acting company. It’s roughly circular, with the stage thrusting out from one side, and seats on the other three. In front of the seats, and surrounding the stage, there’s a yard where you can get £5 standing tickets. If you’ve seen Shakespeare in Love, that gives you a good idea – though the space is actually much smaller than it seems. The point of all this, you see, is to emphasize that the theatre recreates not only the structure of the original building, but also an incredible sense of atmosphere. You can really imagine the crowds of Elizabethan peasants packed in, cheering, shouting and baying – literally, here – for blood.
The intense and claustrophobic setting, aided by incense and black canvas across the roof, gives an amazing power to the play. So potent, in fact, that it induced a number of faintings in the standing audience. (I had to duck out myself toward the end of the first act, though I suspect this was more to do with rushing around and not having eaten all day.) Something like this is a completely different experience to just watching a play; it’s like being part of it. During the performance, I was hit by a realization that when Shakespeare’s characters address the Roman mob, or soliloquize to a faceless off-stage audience, they are actually talking to me. I’ve never really felt that before. The traditional line between stage and audience is completely broken down. The actors marched through the crowd, pushing and fighting and shouting, coming from all directions. The curtain call was a jaunty dance through, and involving, the audience. The theatre lends itself to the play as much as the play lends itself to the space. I can imagine that as a distant piece of drama, played behind the barrier of a proscenium arch, Titus would seem like an absurdity – grossly over-the-top. In the Globe however, it takes on a character of its own, the intimacy of the space forcing confrontation, and drawing the blood-thirst out of an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh or gasp.
The play itself is, apparently, a Shakespearean satire on Elizabethan revenge tragedies. It’s astonishingly bloody, and the Globe team give it the full gory treatment. There are some interesting ideas to be drawn from it: particularly in its juxtaposition of actions of the ‘civilized’ Romans and the ‘barbaric’ Goths. Though it has often been dismissed due to its wildly exaggerated violence, I couldn’t help but see parallels in present day horrors from Rwanda to Sudan. In many ways, Shakespeare’s recognition and dramatization of some of the basest human qualities still rings true today. Are the depths to which his characters descend really so unbelievable? Still, if I have any lingering doubts about its scholarly qualities, as a visceral piece of theatre, it’s better than anything I’ve seen in a long time. In its day, Titus was one of Shakespeare’s runaway successes – and in this setting, I’m not surprised.
Oh, and, whoever decided to put all those white and blue lights inside the trees on the South Bank: genius!