There’s a less well known flipside to the unsettling sensation of deja vu called jamais vu. Where in deja vu sufferers feel brand new situations are somehow familiar, jamais vu instills in its victims the opposite sense that the faces of loved ones, daily routines and favourite places are entirely unknown. The Globe might want to consider setting up a jamais vu support group, because this production of Titus Andronicus could make even the most hardened of groundlings feel uncertain of their surroundings.
With the stage swathed in black cloth, the air cloudy with incense smoke and the atmosphere brooding with ominous sounds from unseen sources, William Dudley’s design for Lucy Bailey’s production is a statement of intent. It sends a message from the moment you enter that this is not going to be a jolly evening out at the Globe with good ol’ safe Shakespeare. It’s the most radical use of the Globe’s space I’ve ever seen, and is effective in all sorts of subtle ways that become apparent as the evening progresses. And though Bailey’s production is a wilful deconsecration of what can sometimes be hallowed as a sacred space, it comes out of deep respect and a profound instinct for how this unique theatre works, and what it can be.
Having broken the sanctity of the stage, Bailey yanks the players out into the yard (and this is one production where standing is most definitely the best seat in the house). Moving through the crowd on platforms of black scaffolding on wheels from which the actors call to each other and to us, the drama seems to fill the entire space and yet retain an extraordinary intimacy and power. I’ve never felt quite so involved in a Shakespeare production, quite so certain that when the leaders on stage appeal to the people of Rome, they’re not making empty rhetorical flourishes but talking directly to me.
The inkily blank canvas also heightens the power of the simple theatrical magic worked by Bailey – from the fluttering handwritten propaganda thrown from the gallery to the actors transformed into hunting hounds by brilliantly observed canine performances and strange, barking horns.
The purity and bravery doesn’t stop with the design. This is a cast without a weak link, and with a shared sense of complete clarity and purpose. William Houston makes a fascinating Titus, from the beginning a proud wreck of a man who, after years of war, has lost none of his fight but the better part of his mind. He wears pain on his face and his limbs seem to twitch from wild exhaustion. Indira Varma’s Tamora is a delight, delivering moments of real pain, but more usually having a lot of fun with the duplicity and manipulativeness of her character while staying just on the right side of vampish. David Shaw-Parker is show-stealing in a hilarious, drunken cameo as Bacchus.
The production doesn’t flinch from violence or bloodshed (‘As used by the Wardrobe Mistress of Titus Andronicus’ must be this year’s most coveted washing powder endorsement). It’s shockingly visceral and graphic, but more than that it leaves a haunting impression of a society so brutalised that violence is almost all it has left. It’s a vision of Rome in its last days clinging to a long lost vision of glory and grandeur, a once golden fountain, to borrow the play’s imagery, now brackish with slime and flowing with tears.
The first half is bleak and almost unbroken by any crack of light. The second half, in contrast, turns out to be surprisingly entertaining, even funny. Both William Houston and the production as a whole seems to take their cue from the moment when, asked why Titus is silent after his daughter has been raped and mutilated, he only laughs, explaining
Why, I have not another tear to shed:
Besides, this sorrow is an enemy,
And would usurp upon my watery eyes
And make them blind with tributary tears:
Then which way shall I find Revenge’s cave?
The second half’s maniacal humour lends it a driving energy and a curious darkness of its own. Only once did I feel this had been taken too far, when Tamora’s impersonation of Revenge (along with her two sons Rapine and Murder) in order to trick Titus comes over as just plain silly – especially jarring given how much of a smooth operator Varma has shown herself to be in the rest of the play.
All told though, this is the best, most consistently and powerfully gripping production I have seen at The Globe. In one telling detail, though the black cloth obliterates the Globe’s legendary stage, Titus and his people wear terracotta and gold robes that are the exact colour of the fake marble columns hidden beneath the shrouds. The Globe is reinvented, but all that is best about it still shines through in this production that’s as full of life as it is of death.
Titus Andronicus is at The Globe until 13 July