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Waxy Bloodshed: Titus Andronicus at The Globe Review

The theatre really is a stressful environment. There is such a pressure in the air to be as still as a statue, a cathode for entertainment, ready to laugh and cry at the correct moments. The seats are almost cruelly uncomfortable, yet you must not shuffle from one cheek to the other for fear of judgemental side glances. You have to remember that the audience watch each other, not just the performers.

Katy Stephens as Titus and Kibong Tanji as Aaron. Photo by Camilla Greenwell.

And yet I could not wait to watch this production. Despite the above, I still greatly enjoy the theatre. It possesses that engulfing quality that cinema has tried to claim exclusively. Think of those John Boyega video messages shown in Vue cinemas. Theatre achieves this without the help of any pre-show celebrity instructional recording. You are forced to watch what’s on stage, your only distraction from the rock-hard seating or sweltering temperature. Then, suddenly, it’s over and you loved every second.

Having not been to the theatre since the pre-covid era, the rituals of malaise were intimidating. Nevertheless, I clung onto the promise of immersion. After all, I was seeing Titus Andronicus. What’s more immersive than Shakespeare’s B-movie, gorefest masterpiece?

This production at the Globe boldly guides this challenging text into the 21st century with the inclusion of an all-female cast. This is an elegant decision which never oversells itself, the play’s discordance with its casting communicating enough. A second bold decision is made. Instead of buckets of blood, we have wax cauldrons and candles. Each character holds a candle, lit whenever they enter stage. Whenever a bloody bout begins, instead of hosing the deceptively white stage with viscera, candles are cut, crushed, blended, and blown out. A life is cut short.

Mei Mei MacLoed as Chiron, Kirsten Foster as Tamora and Mia Selway as Demetrius. Photo by Camilla Greenwell.

The performances are all fleshed out, even for the less boisterous characters such as Marcus (Sophie Russell). However, aforementioned characters of exuberance dominate this performance, particularly Katy Stephen’s booming Titus and Kibong Tanji’s slickly wicked Aaron. Georgia Mae-Myers is given the extremely difficult job named Lavinia, an unforgiving role emotionally and physically. Myers handles it with elegance. Following certain horrific events in the plot, one cannot help but wince whenever Lavinia enters the stage. Pain oozes from every wax sealed incision whilst the gurgling desperation of Lavinia invokes John Hurt’s ‘The Elephant Man’, a discomforting parallel.

Yet, this play never quite goes full throttle. The decision to omit any blood is only partly effective. Symbolic candle placing and gifting, particularly in moments where characters must beg for their lives, are when these burning sticks are most resonate. But, in no play more than Titus, there comes the time for a violence that the candles do not deliver. The shock, and perhaps grim satisfaction, of a sword slicing into flesh cannot be replicated by scissors snipping a candle. Those sanguine moments that Titus is famous for fall flat, usually bookended by a musical number which cunningly reinvigorates the audience.

Lucy McCormick as Saturninus. Photo by Camilla Greenwell.

But not me. What this production hadn’t accounted for is the standing student spaces in the upper seating areas. I had the ultimate version of theatre discomfort, the final boss of bad seating: an omittance of seating altogether. This had not phased me, for I knew the promise of Titus Andronicus. It is hard to dwell on uncomfortable accommodation when someone has a severed hand in their mouth. So, to have that blood stained distraction substituted for wax was disappointing, and more uncomfortable than the original violence (in this case physically).

I can’t complain too much. The ticket was incredibly cheap, and a lot of love and hard work went into this production. I just pine for the day when I can watch a properly gory adaptation of Titus, one which goes all in with no hesitation. Nevertheless, any attempt to stage this wickedly divisive play deserves commendations. So go and see it. Just make sure to stretch your legs before.

Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.