Theatre Review: Bloody Brilliant


Titus Andronicus, written by William Shakespeare; produced by the Globe Theatre: seen July 8, 2014

“Shakespeare as a young writer seems to have gone through a brief Quentin Tarantino phase.” – The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) in reference to Titus Andronicus


William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a pretty violent play. According to TV Tropes, there is “an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines.” Murder, rape, cannibalism: if there ever is a case for Shakespeare’s writing for the masses, and the success of blood and gore for said masses, it would be this play.

The program states that this was one of Shakespeare’s first big hits, and I admit that the stories of people fainting at performances because it was so bloody and violent was the main reason I chose this play as my Shakespearean experience at the Globe Theatre. However, as with Trafalgar Transformed’s Richard III, I found the production more violent than bloody – although this show was by far much worse on the gorn, and I did actually see three people faint during the production.

While a tragedy, Titus – like Romeo and Juliet – has a lot of comedic moments, especially in the first half. (Although Act II has one of the best Shakespearean insults ever: “Villain, I have DONE thy mother.”) The Globe’s staging also kept in mind how things were in the days of Shakespeare, and used the space set aside for the groundlings liberally. This included not only exiting and entering through the house several times, but using movable ladders to transport actors at a higher level than the stage. And let’s not forget the inevitable interacting with the audience, asking one where they were from and then making jokes at the response of “New Zealand”.

Rehearsal shot from "Titus Andronicus". Photo courtesy the Globe Theatre
Rehearsal shot from “Titus Andronicus”. Photo courtesy the Globe Theatre

Like a lot of Shakespeare, the plot is both simple and complicated at the same time. Titus is a general from Rome, and had brought home some Goths as POWs. He kills the eldest son of the queen of the Goths. This queen, Tamora, vows vengeance. When the new emperor decides to marry Tamora, she realizes she has her chance. She sends her sons to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia, and they in the process chop off her hands and tongue. They implicate Titus’s sons, and in an attempt to save their lives, Titus chops his hand off. It doesn’t work, and he’s sent their heads (along with his hand). Titus’s only living son is sent off to raise an army. Tamora – pretending to be the concept of Revenge – persuades Titus to hold a feast to honor the emperor, and then stupidly walks away, leaving her two sons in the same room as Titus. The man then cuts their throats and decides to bake them in a pie to serve at said feast. Once his revenge is sure, Titus then kills his daughter (she is ‘too shamed’ to live) and stabs Tamora. The emperor kills Titus. Titus’s son kills the emperor, and – pretty much the only one alive at this point – is then made emperor.

Yeah – that’s simple, right? But as with all Shakespeare, if the company is good and knows what they’re doing, you can follow along pretty easily – and this was, after all, the Globe Theatre.

The acting was unquestionably brilliant: William Houston as Titus especially did an outstanding job of going from insane to insaner as the production went on. The Globe is adamant about keeping the stage and productions as close to Shakespeare’s time as they can, and the various fight choreography (not to mention the on-stage violence) was – to this techie – gorgeous to watch, and very clever as a result. (Although there’s something inherently wrong about applauding how clever using a sword up a nurse’s nethers as a death, or how awesome it was to see how they staged Titus cutting off his own hand on stage.) There’s something to say about ‘going back to basics’, and relying on creativity to do what we’re so used to having CGI and cut scenes do on screen.

In the end, I had gone to Titus Andronicus because the rumors of how violent it was intrigued me. And yes, the play was very violent. But it was the comedic moments and the brilliant acting that I ended up appreciating the most.

Titus Andronicus closed July 13 at the Globe. For more information, visit the Globe Theatre’s website. If you’re interested, my photos from the tour of the Globe can be seen here