The production of 'Titus Andronicus' currently playing to packed houses at the Globe has a reputation for blood and guts. And that's what's delivered but it's a bit more than just a gore-fest. I've never seen it performed before and I haven't read it so I came fresh to the plot and its tale of power and corruption and, yes, killing people in imaginative ways. Titus isn't a very loveable character, not warm and fluffy at all, but he is at the centre of the play along with his enemy, Tamora, Queen of the Goths. It's the interaction between them, directly and, more often, indirectly, that carries the play forward.
The play opens with a triumphal procession in Rome through the pit (where the audience stands) with Goth slaves pulling Titus's chariot with two of his sons in coffins and Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in chains at his feet. The slaves turn out to be her three sons and her lover. Before burying his sons Titus decides to kill her eldest son as a sacrifice and this is the spark that drives the rest of the play, the revenge and counter-revenge that ultimately decimates the two proud families. One little error of judgement and the world changes. It's compounded when Titus refuses the accolade of becoming emperor and chooses the last emperor's eldest son for that position. Error number two. This all takes place in the first 15 minutes or so and that seals his fate that we explore in the rest of the play.
The new emperor, Saturinus, chooses Tamora as his new wife and empress, elevating her from captive slave to senior, at least in influence, over Titus who has just waged war on the Goths and lost two sons. Titus loses another son who he kills in defence of the rights of the emperor to whom he is loyal beyond reason. The emperor's brother runs off with Titus's daughter and is then slain and two of Titus's sons are blamed and killed for his murder and his daughter raped and mutilated. Yes, there is a lot of violence and blood.
Titus starts to lose it and becomes mad without realising that it's Tamora and her lover Aaron behind all his misfortunes. Aaron is found out when Tamora gives birth to his son (he's a Moor, you see) and Titus kills her remaining two sons and serves them to her to eat as a nice slice of pie. More blood, more death and a new emperor in the form of his youngest son, Lucius. Phew!
Yes, people did faint at the violence and gore - it's not just hype, it happened and I was aware of three fainters but there might've been more. I've never experienced that before - it's a play and it's actors that come on at the end to take a bow so why faint? I shall ponder on that.
Despite the violence and blood I really enjoyed this production. A plain stage with even the pillars blacked out and no scenery, just a few props and platforms on wheels to take the action out into the pit amongst the audience. The cast weren't terribly polite about moving people out of the way to trundle the platforms around - I suppose they can't be since they've got to move from X to Y in Z seconds to keep the play flowing. Luckily I was sitting in the balcony so could enjoy the sight of people being herded this way and that from my place of safety.
There was so much movement in the production that it was almost dizzying with no static scenes at all. I can easily see some of the scenes as being static in other productions, with actors trading lines and word-play but in this production they paced, they ran, they jumped, never being still, always some movement of the actors on stage or the actors in the audience. No wonder that they're all lean and mean (other than the lovely figure of Bacchus who kept spilling his wine, poor thing). They even wore platform shoes.
William Houston as Titus and Indira Varma as Tamora were both excellent, trading blows with words and smiles when they were together and sufficient viciousness when apart to make me join the Tamora fan club. Revenge is sweet. Obi Amili was excellent as Aaron, the threatening and scheming Moor, and I liked Matthew Needham as Saturinus, the rather vapid and useless emperor.
As Chris commented, it's almost as if Mr Shakespeare relished this play for what crude and merciless torture or death he could inject next. It's not a play I would want to see regularly but this production is excellent and well worth seeing (but I'd recommend the balcony seats rather than the pit).
I had a momentary pang when they talked about Goths and no-one on stage was wearing black mascara or had big black hair. I yearned for Siouxsie to be Tamora and then I came to my senses - Siouxsie would never have lost the war with Titus in the first place or allowed herself to be captured. Obvs.