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‘Titus Andronicus’ Review – Rome Burns Down For Good In This Candlelit Massacre

Lucy McCormick as Saturninus in Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo by Camilla Greenwell. This image has been cropped and compressed.

Staff writer Romilly Spaul reviews the Globe’s all-female production of “Titus Andronicus”, which puts the play’s violence in a new light. 

“Titus Andronicus”, oft-called Shakespeare’s most gruesome play, is as vicious as ever at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Those familiar with the space will recall its intimate seating and candlelit atmosphere. With Jude Christian’s direction, these candles take on a whole new meaning as vessels of a fragile, flickering life. Each character holds a candle, and each candle is blown out (or smashed with a mallet, or drilled through, or — in one memorable scene — put in a blender), when the character dies. Lavinia’s amputated hands are dipped in wax and reformed as shapeless claws held out in supplication.

Dealing with a play formed around violence against women, casting director Becky Paris has found an interesting way to explore these gender dynamics: the cast of “Titus Andronicus” is entirely female. At one point, a male stagehand walks onstage to aid with the set change and Saturninus asks offhandedly “who’s this?”. The play addresses these themes of misogyny and brutality both in the context of the play and in its sparingly placed musical interludes. Songwriters George Haywood and Liv Morris tell Ashawanta Jackson in an interview enclosed in the production’s program that “We wanted each of our songs to similarly have their own world, and sit alongside the play without inserting themselves into the story”. When the play opens with the cast singing the refrain: “Men killing men, killing women, killing flies” it is not the characters of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” speaking to us, it is a group of women very aware of the story they are about to tell.

Katy Stephens as Titus and Kibong Tanji as Aaron in Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo by Camilla Greenwell. This image has been cropped and compressed.

Katy Stephens’s Titus is a commanding presence, played with convincing gravitas even throughout his descent into madness. Alongside Stephens, Kirsten Forster treats the role of Tamora with unexpected, but extremely effective, tragedy, Saturninus (Lucy McCormick) is given a fun and flamboyant presence, and Aaron (Kibong Tanji) is excellently shown in all his confident deviousness. Yet, the standout of “Titus Andronicus”, perhaps for the first time ever, is Lavinia, played by Georgia Mae-Myers.

Lavinia haunts the second half of the play, holding her grotesque wax claws in front of her in an ever-present reminder of her mutilation, constantly, audibly choking on her own blood. Here, one is reminded of the haunting title of the short story, “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream”. The feast scene is heartbreaking, not only for Tamora — who, instead of spitting out the pie, begins stuffing it desperately in her mouth, foreshadowed by a song at the beginning of the second half about a rabbit who cannibalised her offspring because “they were safer back inside her” — but also for Lavinia, who vehemently protests, but is unable to stop her father from blowing out the candle fixed in her wax hands.

The production eschews the final scene of the play, in which Lucius and Marcus Andronicus handle a peaceful transfer of power, instead lapsing into song as the cast all walk about the stage putting out the candles one by one. This production does not mourn the fall of a brutal regime, formed on the backs of its dead citizens — it celebrates it. As the final candle is blown out, the cast gather round, dancing and raucously singing. “Rome is burning! Good!”.

“Titus Andronicus” is at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 15 April. You can book tickets here.

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