It has been a couple of weeks now since I visited The Globe to see Shakespeare’s first (and some say his worst written) tragedy, Titus Andronicus. I was keen to see Lucy Bailey’s 2006 revival of the production, particularly as I had studied the play during my A Levels and I find Shakespeare plays are meant to be seen as a performance rather than laboriously analysed as a book. However, I had also heard many interesting accounts of the horror evoked in the play which has caused many a person to faint! I’m not usually one for watching or revelling in gory, bloody drama’s, but there was something intriguing about going to see a play – see real-life actors in a confined space – that has caused people to faint. I guess I was curious to see if it would have the same effect on me. Though I think there was a little side of me that was more curious to see if I would spot anyone in the audience fainting from the horror. I don’t think I believed that it would actually happen, though I spotted three instances of people falling to the floor and many more people leaving during the particularly harrowing scenes that litter the play far too frequently than is comfortable.
For those who don’t know, Titus Andronicus is a revenge tragedy thought to have been performed as early as 1594. The play opens up to a procession – Titus and his sons have just returned from defeating the Goths and have as their captives the Queen of Goths, Tamora, her three sons, and her lover, Aaron. After burying the sons he has lost, Titus sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son, to avenge the dead. He is then offered the emperorship of Rome but declines and nominates the late emperor’s eldest son, Saturninus. In turn, Saturninus offers to marry Titus’s only daughter, Lavinia, but she is secretly betrothed to his younger brother, Bassianus. Angry at being rejected, Saturninus marries Tamora, instead, elevating her to the position of Empress of Rome. What ensues is a bloody, gory, sickening tale of Revenge between Tamora’s and Titus’ family. Instances of rape, dismemberment and cannibalism abound, as well as a rather humorous fit of madness (as always seems to be the case in a Shakespeare tragedy) until it comes crashing down to its inevitable end.
I don’t quite know why I have always been drawn to this story. Gore has never really appealed to me either in novels or films, but I think what Titus Andronicus is so good at highlighting is the pawns women play in times of war or in acts of revenge. Tamora plots with Aaron to avenge her son’s death and the most brutal and heart-wrenching way they can do that is through using Titus’s only daughter. Tamora encourages her sons to not only rape Lavinia but to ensure that she cannot communicate the ordeal she has been through. They cut out her tongue so she cannot speak of it and they cut off her hands so she cannot sign or write down their names, like the story of Philomel in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Watching the aftermath of this devastation was one of the key scenes that caused many in the audience to draw in a sharp breath or walk out altogether.
Being interviewed about her production of Titus Andronicus, Lucy Bailey states that the importance of the play rests on the fact that ‘it’s relevant to so many things going on in the world today, where terrifying and incomprehensible violence is happening; the savagery of the play is not so removed from our own culture’. Also, coupled with the aesthetics of the stage – Bailey’s ‘instinct was to create a black claustrophobic space, which is why [her] designer Bill Dudley created the velarium [the awning over the yard]‘ – the play takes on a strangely realistic and savage performance. As Lucy Bailey so wonderfully puts it:
‘The raw physicality of the play, the confrontation of man and man on an almost bestial level led us to understand the theatre space as an arena, a bloodbath in the literal sense’.
I think in this day and age, where violence and blood and gore is explored so graphically and repetitively in film and TV, we may think that we have become a culture desensitised to it. But on watching Lucy Bailey’s production of Titus Andronicus, it was refreshing to see that people could still be shocked and I think this has a lot to do with the claustrophobically realistic nature of the performance. The Globe is a unique theatre space that allows interaction and contact with the audience in a way no other theatre can. Not only are we spectators but we become involved, physically and emotionally, in the events that unravel before us. It is no wonder, then, that people fainted or walked out during the performance.