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London Aisle: At Shakespeare’s Globe, bloody revenge served au naturel in ‘Titus Andronicus’

Submitted by on Jun 17, 2014 – 12:20 am

Saturninus (Matthew Needham, left) looks on as Titus (William Houston) serves up a special delicacy to Goth Queen Tamora (Indira Varma). (Simon Kane)Review: “Titus Andronicus” by William Shakespeare, at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, through July 13. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

LONDON – To watch a production by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on its home turf, an open-air replica of the Bard’s original playhouse, is to sense the Elizabethan theater as a living, breathing – not to mention grunting and sweating – organism. Amid the swarming actors, you’re on top of the action; or make that, in the recent instance of that spectacle of maim and slaughter “Titus Andronicus,” the mayhem. 

Titus Andronicus (William Houston) gets a hero's welcome in Rome after subduing the Goths. (Simon Kane)From time to time, the Shakespeare’s Globe company takes its work Stateside, as in this season’s Broadway knock-out double feature of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night,” the latter of which brought Mark Rylance the Tony Award as best featured actor in a play for his portrayal of Olivia. This summer, the Globe ensemble visits Chicago Shakespeare Theater to present “Hamlet” (July 28-30).

It’s a marvelous troupe wherever you may encounter them. But as its embracing name suggests, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre isn’t only about the acting company. The ensemble really must be experienced in its performing space, its “O,” as Shakespeare referred to the original structure – a modest arena where drama and comedy spill from the stage to envelope the standing crowd, the “groundlings,” who mill about between the seated viewers and the acting platform.

That’s exactly the experience American film director Sam Wanamaker wanted to recapture when he initiated and led the long campaign to resurrect the Globe on the south bank of the Thames, just a short distance from where its namesake once stood. Wanamaker’s dream venue opened in 1997. Meeting Shakespeare on the open earth, on such earthy terms, is nothing like being inside any theater. It’s hard to imagine a more apt setting for the wild, predatory, indeed vicious world of “Titus Andronicus.”

Goth Queen Tamora (Indira Varma) pleads for the life of her son. (Simon Kane)Among Shakespeare’s less frequently performed plays, an early work apparently first given only a year or so after the premiere of “Richard III,” “Titus Andronicus” amplifies the ruthlessness localized in Richard into a general way of vengeful life in ancient Rome. If the display of murderous one-upmanship verges on the comical, it is existential comedy – a commentary on the absurdity of war and the rites of war, the submersion of man’s better qualities beneath an unbridled indulgence in his darkest proclivities.

When the great Roman general Titus Andronicus (William Houston, every inch the warrior) returns to Rome after a long but successful campaign against the threatening Goths, he finds the city in the throes of choosing a new emperor from two sons of the late leader. A clamor goes up for Titus himself, but he waves it off, declaring himself a soldier, not a politician. For the moment, he must perform one last act of the lately concluded war: sacrifice the eldest son of the captured Goth queen, Tamora (Indira Varma), as proper vengeance for the loss of his own sons in combat.

Obi Abili portrays Aaron, the Gothic queen's Moorish lover and insidious adviser. (Simon Kane)When Titus rebuffs Tamora’s plea for her son’s life, she vows vengeance in turn. Which comes to pass in the most violent and horrific fashion – when Tamora’s two surviving sons rape Titus’ beautiful daughter Lavinia, then cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so that she cannot identify her attackers. But the truth comes out, whereupon Titus devises a worthy reprisal that ends in a final scene of multiple deaths, starkly prefiguring the conclusions of both “Hamlet” and “King Lear.”

The events of “Titus Andronicus” are not so much driven by plot as they are propelled by the headlong sequence of revenge. Titus and the queen of the Goths are perhaps cut from the same cloth, noble leaders inflamed by circumstance; the real pot-stirrer is the queen’s Moorish lover Aaron (the lusty Obi Abili), a proto-Iago character who relishes every act of malevolence.

The ravaged Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) is attended by her father Titus Andronicus (William Houston). (Simon Kane)Director Lucy Bailey manages to focus the play’s inherent energy and the theme’s crescendo of madness to create an aura of necessity, or at least a taut line of inevitability. Yet the single moment that lifts this enterprise from mere mayhem to actual drama is our first glimpse of the ravished Lavinia, after the assault is perpetrated off-stage: The appearance of Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s hysterically convulsing, bloody, mute Lavinia might induce many a father to react with unmeasurable rage. The sight renders Titus almost as silent as his hacked child.

Whether it is a great play may be open to question, but to witness its tumult au naturel, this harsh portrait of man in a state of nature, amid the hurly-burly of groundlings and imperial processions in the stirring air, is to feel a connection to the play’s native print and first life.

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