Last weekend was the time for me to go, at long last, to London. The Globe tour voucher was burning a hole in my pocket. Kathy had given me it as a Christmas present and we had been planning a long weekend in Town for weeks. My thinking was, as we are doing the tour, it would be mad not to take in a play. Anthony and Cleopatra would have been my choice but, the voucher was only valid for six months and time was running out, so it had to be Titus Andronicus.
I only knew Titus vaguely, so I ordered the Oxford edition from Amazon straight away. It arrived in plenty of time for me to read through it. Then I thought to myself, I won’t read it first, I’ll go and see the play, and see how I get on. This is a different process for me; I have always read the play first, apart from one or two DVD’s I have. These would be: The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. I haven’t read them yet but, I have watched the movies.
Before I talk about the play, I have to tell you about the Globe. It is a magical place, right on the banks of the river. We took the tour the day after seeing Titus Andronicus, so we had two days to look at her. We crossed over the river on Southwark Bridge one day and London Bridge the next. Then we went down to the riverside and walked along Bankside a ways and there it was. It is hard to describe how I felt; it looks just like the photos or how I’d saw it on TV. Maybe it is the fact that it’s quite a new building, think that was in the back of my head. That is just a small thing, because I just The Globe was amazing and I would be happy seeing all the plays down here. I am trying to figure out how I could go down to see: Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar latter in the summer. That would make it three Roman Plays in one season. It would be very expensive, but more to the point, it would be difficult, with my horrible rota, to get the time off from work.
The tour was a joy. We got to see them rehearsing a sword fight for Hamlet, I’ll tell you these guys don’t mess around. Those swords could do a lot of damage. We watched a demonstration on how to dress Ophelia, with a quite embarrassed young lady volunteer. To be honest, I would much rather have watched the sword fighting, think Kathy appreciated it more. Then we had afternoon tea in The Swan tavern, next door. All part of the tour. It was a great day.
The day before the tour, was the play. Titus Andronicus. It is a story of, murder, rape and revenge and more murder. The cast were amazing and all of them played their parts spectacularly. Titus is a very complex story and sitting in the audience, on the first level with a hired cushion to save you from getting calluses on your rump, was a fantastic experience. The story just washed over me, with the palms of my hands sweating, from the sheer tension. The intensity and drama in this dark and foreboding setting, the pillars, wrapped around in swathes of black drapes and the hole in the roof covered over with awnings, with long narrow gaps between them. You almost forgot to breathe sometimes. The play starts with the late Emperors’ sons, Saturninus and Bassianus being pushed around in raised steel platforms, by men banging on the steel frames and chanting, all amongst the Groundlings on the floor of the theatre. The Groundlings are the audience that stand on the ground and some, get to lean on the stage. Titus has returned from war with the Goths. He has brought prisoners with him. Tamora the Queen of the Goths, her three sons and her lover, a Moor called Aaron. Titus has her eldest son executed, so she swears vengeance on him. Titus is offered the Emperorship but refuses and recommends Saturninus the late Emperors eldest son. He is made Emperor and in gratitude to Titus, offers to marry his daughter Lavinia. She is betrothed to his brother Bassianus, so he chooses to marry Tamara instead.
Now that Tamara is the Emperors wife, she and her lover Aaron the Moor, plan their revenge on Titus. This is when the blood really starts to flow. She sends her two surviving sons to take Lavinia into the forest to rape her and murder Bassianus. After the rape, they cut off her hands and cut out her tongue, so she cannot identify them. Aaron convinces Saturninus that it was the sons of Titus who murdered his brother. Saturninus condemns them to death. Aaron, who is a bit of a boy, tells Titus, if he cuts his hand off and sends it to Caesar, he will spare his sons.
Their heads are returned to Titus, in two grisly looking bags, along with his hand, little bit of comedy there. Quite a few laughs throughout actually, black humour of course. Titus sends his remaining son Lucius, to raise a Goth army and return to Rome. I was thrilled when Coriolanus got a mention here.
On hearing of the approaching Goth army Tamora and her two sons visit Titus. They are disguised as three Roman furies. Rape, Murder and Revenge, one of the funniest and sinister scenes in the play. She persuades him to invite Lucius to a feast at his house; she goes back to her husband and leaves her sons with Titus. He strings them up by the ankles and cuts their throats, then bakes them in a pie and feeds them to their mother and the Emperor. It all turns into a bloodbath after that. Titus kills his daughter; she was a poor gibbering wreck after her ordeal. I could have cried for her, the way her father smothered her in a loving embrace, it was quite heartbreaking. Then he kills Tamara, Saturninus kills Titus and Lucius kills Saturninus. Lucius becomes Emperor of Rome.
There is a side plot, the Queen falls pregnant and has a baby to Aaron. The nurse brings the baby to its father and there is a bit off light relief, well not really. The baby is black and Aaron is told he must get rid of him. So I’m sitting there, on the edge of my seat, bighting my nails worrying about the little baby. Aaron, who adores his baby, asks the nurse, who all knows about the birth. Why just me and the midwife, she tells him. I knew what was coming. It was the most brutal and violent scene in the play. Everyone in the Globe went Ouch! Followed by Oh no! I won’t spoil it for you but, there were a few walk outs, I don’t think they were disgusted or anything. It was I think just too much for them. I heard some people fainted on the first night. Wonder if that’s true, or maybe just publicity, trying to get more bums on hired cushions.
I thought: Titus Andronicus was an amazing play, as I’ve said earlier in this post the whole cast were fantastic. I bought the program, so I can mention a few of them. Matthew Needham and Steffan Donnelly were brilliant, leading off as the late Emperors sons. Steffan coming back later as a bird seller was very funny, until he was killed, again. William Houston was just brilliant as the war weary general, Titus Andronicus. Ian Gelder as Marcus Andronicus; his brother was magnificent, when he spoke to us as a faithful member of the family, I could relate to every word he said. The compassion in his face and eyes was magnetic. It was he who tells Lavinia to put a stick in her mouth and use her stumps, to write in the sand and identify her attackers. The Goth Queen Tamora played by Indira Varma, was wonderfully vengeful and stunning. I’m sure I have seen her on telly. I can’t go on saying how wonderful they all were, I’ll run out of superlatives. One last mention and it’s for the musicians. Their talent is amazing; I half expected them to be miming to a backing track. Not a bit of it. One of them, I think looking at my programme it may have been Adrian Woodward, played solo on a very long horn, I swear there was three sounds coming out of it at once, all sounding sweet and beautiful.
A bit about the play, I learned from the programme. Titus Andronicus is believed to have been written in 1590-1 some think later 1593. At first it was thought to have been collaboration between Shakespeare and another playwright George Peele, but most scholars now think Shakespeare wrote it alone. It is one of his Roman plays, but unlike the others it is not based on fact or history. The major influence is thought to be from the tale of Philomel from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A book William Shakespeare would probably have read as a school boy. It is thought, influences would have come from other playwrights, such as Marlowe and Thomas Kyd. Robert Green warned his fellow playwrights against the “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” A nice piece of evidence to prove Shakespeare is the author of his own plays.
My first visit to The Globe was an occasion I will never forget and the murderous Titus Andronicus will be a play I shall return to whenever I can. I’ve not read it yet, so there may be another post further down the road.
I’d like to credit The Oxford Shakespeare. Titus Andronicus Edited by Eugene M. Waith. General Editor Stanley Wells. Also The Globe Theatre Titus Andronicus Program. Great sources in helping me write this blog post.