TITUS ANDRONICUS | London, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Set in the gleaming candlelight of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, this new production by Shakespeare’s Globe presents a satirical and questioning take on Shakespeare’s most divisive tragedy. In director Jude Christian’s retelling, the many horrors of the text – coercion, sexual assault, rape, mutilation, murder, infanticide, cannibalism – somehow do not feel gratuitous.

Without giving too much away, the opening sequence features a musical-theatre-style song (by Liv Morris and George Heyworth), which acknowledges the catharsis of watching heinous acts committed onstage, comparing the events to a night-in watching a true crime TV series, or a gory Netflix drama. Rather than fainting away at the sight of gallons of blood (as many did at Lucy Bailey’s 2006 gore-extravaganza), we instead are allowed to intellectually engage with the toxic culture in which this kind of chain of events was allowed to occur.

An all-female and non-binary cast offers a thought-provoking inversion of the original Shakespearean production (which would have been played by an all-male cast). This highlights the play’s gender dynamics, social roles and expectations, and especially the play’s ideas around honour that motivate the characters in their quests for revenge or power. Beautiful Renaissance-era musical accompaniment (composed by Jasmin Kent Rodgman), and the Playhouse’s signature use of candlelight, both create a powerful – even primordial – theatrical experience.

That said, the treatment of the violent sequences feel somewhat underwhelming. Candles stand in for bodies at points of violence in this production: chopped; torched; smashed with hammers (you name it; the candles get it). While this seems an ingenious idea on paper, it actually gives the play a comic, satirical quality that cuts against the text: it feels like the characters are ironically commenting on their roles, rather than inhabiting them.

This may well be the point, but as an audience member craving the kind of escapism ironised in the opening number as catharsis through “torture porn but more artistic”, the enterprise feels ultimately underwhelming.

Playing at Shakespeare’s Globe 19 January – 15 April 2023.

The Prickle - About transp