During the summer I went to a performance in Shakespeare's Globe of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. That is the one with a pretty extreme level of violence that for a long time was considered more or less unperformable; as tastes have changed it has in recent year become a bit of a staple. The play follows the eponymous character, a Roman general, as he gets caught up in a vicious blood feud with the captured Queen of the Goths. This eventually features people being butchered and fed in pies to their parent and, most notoriously, the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, daughter of Titus.
Titus Andronicus was apparently Shakespeare's first big hit, and I can see why. It is loud and brash and never short of action. I can also see why it fell out of favour. Aside from its shocking violence, it seems to lack any obvious moral or intellectual point to it. People keep striking out at their enemies and in turn suffer terrible responses to past slights, with no great sense that there is any good person here. Nor is it offering us any obvious message about the evils of blood feuds. Titus himself occupies the central role that a heroic figure should occupy, but he is terribly tainted by the violence around him, violence that he too is happy enough to dish out for reasons that to us are somewhat bizarre (he kills one of his sons in a brawl and eventually murders his daughter to avoid being depressed by her crippled figure).
You can see, though, why this has become a popular play again. For all the high culture associations of Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus offers the violent thrill of a gangster drama or the brutal struggles of unsavoury yet compelling characters served up in something like Game of Thrones.
Music is a big thing in Globe productions, usually with some approximation to an Elizabethan ensemble playing in a box behind the actors. They went away from that for this, with the music being more based on drums and strange long pipes. And they were often played in the audience, combined with the banging of metal on the wheeled metal towers that they would occasionally push through the crowds, with actors on the back. Naturally I was standing, and having to continually jump out of the way of people who were playing the part of thugs a little too convincingly was all part of the fun. The dance at the end (all Globe plays end with a dance) seemed a bit wilder than usual, maybe deliberately designed to remind of one of those mediaeval dances of death.
All in all this was an engaging trip to the theatre, but I think Titus Andronicus could be filed under enjoyable trash rather than something that is actually good.
image source (Independent)