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The atmosphere is pretty edgy even before the killing starts in Lucy Bailey’s excellent production of Shakespeare’s goriest tragedy. The Globe courtyard, usually open to the elements, is shrouded over by a huge dark awning by designer William Dudley, the columns are swathed in black, there’s incense in the air and the unmistakable sound of knives being sharpened. It’s eerie, exciting, claustrophobic, unnerving. There’s bloodletting to be done here, and we are in on it.
The crowd gathers in the standing area, slightly apprehensive. But then Titus bursts in, victorious in his return to Rome from battle with the Goths, carried shoulder-high through the spectators, and the mood swings to triumphal. So Bailey brilliantly sets the tone for the play’s queasy mix of black comedy, increasing savagery and saturating grief. She makes great use of the yard space, often driving the action through the standing audience, while Django Bates’s haunting score enhances the febrile mood.
Thus from the moment Titus makes his terrible mistake – sacrificing a son of the captive Queen Tamora and so unleashing a savage cycle of revenge – we are wrapped in the story, complicit even.
The brutality in the play is so extreme – ending with the infamous scene in which a mother eats her own sons, baked in a pie – that it can become farcical. Bailey offsets this by revelling in the opportunities for gallows humour: Titus, for example, capers about in a chef’s hat as he serves up the grisly dish.
This light relief makes the sudden switches into horror hit home. The audience slips into shocked silence as Titus’s bright-eyed daughter Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) stumbles on to the stage having been viciously raped and maimed.
Mute, mutilated and slick with blood she totters about, quaking. Her piteous state reminds us that sexual violence has long been, and remains, a weapon of war.
In a vigorous, fleet-footed and versatile ensemble, Matthew Needham stands out as the sardonic, sadistic Emperor Saturninus and Indira Varma as the sweetly manipulative Tamora, a woman driven to heartless revenge through her own loss. William Houston’s grizzled Titus begins brusque and dutiful and progresses through manic despair to a sort of lucid insanity.
There’s the odd wrong note, which loses some depth of pathos, but this is a production that deftly combines psychological detail with wild energy, comic brio and desolate horror to plunge you into the waking nightmare of a society gripped by blood feud.