Last night was so incredible I don’t even know where to start.
The weather was nice, for a change, which meant I got to see the evening sun shining off the plastered, timbered walls of the Globe as I crossed the Millenium Bridge. I sat on the sidewalk at 6:30, eagerly waiting for the gates to open in a half an hour, wondering why there wasn’t a crowd of fellow groundlings gathering to get a good spot. I mean, who doesn’t want to spend their Tuesday night standing for several hours to witness murder, mayhem and a little cannibalism? But finally the gates do open, and I get my program, with its handy synopsis and historical background. I chat with the vendor; he advises standing about a row or two back from the stage, so you can see the peripheral action, and also because sometimes the actors like to involve the audience.
Standing in line waiting for the theater doors to open (I’m second place)….it starts to rain. Luckily I am prepared with my Official Globe Theatre Rain Mac, complete with Falstaff quotation on the back (“Let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves…” from The Merry Wives of Windsor). I took a tour of the Globe that morning and went a little crazy in the gift shop. The tour was fantastic; did you know it’s the first thatched building built in London since the Great Fire? How cool is that?
The interior of the Globe is magnificent. The stage is swathed entirely in black cloth, except the roof, which is painted with the sun and the signs of the zodiac. There are two tall censers standing onstage, burning the same incense they use at a Catholic mass. I haven’t smelled that for ages. How strange to encounter it here. There’s a smoke machine underneath the stage that spews out a wet fog intermittently, which combined with the fading sun and incense creates a wonderfully eerie atmosphere.
I’m right in front, dead center, second row (insofar as there are rows in a crowd of people). The Globe is decieving; it’s a lot bigger than it looks. The Yard can hold 700 people, but there are only 300 of us groundlings tonight. The theater slowly starts to fill up and it’s amazing to see, from the Yard, surrounded by eager spectators like me.
And it’s a hell of a spectacle. This cast is making full use of theater in the round; the actors come running from all directions–it opens with Titus returning triumphantly to Rome on litter carried by Goth prisoners, parading around the Yard on their way to the stage. There are two wheeled platforms that are used frequently, actors standing on top declaiming while the bit players push them around, literally shoving the groundlings out of the way. I don’t know how they manage it with a full house. More than a few scenes happen right in front of my face in the Yard–the hunting scene, the discovery of Bassianus’ body–I could practically smell the actors’ sweat.
I’d never seen or read Titus Andronicus before last night. I make it a policy not to read Shakespeare until I’ve seen him performed–it’s a play, after all, and it makes it easier to understand. Get the plot and the action first, go back to the script to savor the poetry later. I knew Titus was bloody–I think everybody knows about the Pie Eating Scene–but I wasn’t prepared for just how gruesome it is. There’s a scene where three characters disguise themselves as Rape, Murder, and Revenge, and I think Shakespeare wanted to see just how much of that he could fit into one play. It reaches almost ludicrous levels of violence, to the point that it’s comic–the whole audience was laughing, half in shock, half in nervousness, throughout the whole performance. Shakespeare takes patriarchal Roman warrior culture to its logical conclusions in this play, with the result that nearly everybody is dead by the end. It’s almost like absurdist theater, there’s nothing you can do but laugh at their, well, bloodymindedness. Because it’s all pointless, ultimately. Nothing changes, no one’s redeemed, by the end; Rome is in the same state is was at the beginning, about to be overrun by the Goths. The only element that really horrified the audience, into dumbstruck silence, was Lavinia. When Lavinia appeared, raped and mutilated, her hands cut off and her tongue ripped out, drooling blood, you could hear a pin drop. She just mesmerizes the audience with her agony. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her, though I really, really wanted to. When ever she was onstage she was like a dead weight, compared with the frenzied action around her. When Titus kills her it’s a shock but almost a relief, too, like a mercy-killing.
I think the moral of this story is a pretty simple one: Killing People is a Bad Thing. I don’t know what Shakespeare’s “intent” was, but it seems to me like a brutally clear example of the inherent self-destruction and nihilism of militaristic culture, the violence of patriarchal structures. And people wonder why I’m a pacifist.
Damn but it was a great show. Next time, though, I think I’ll catch Twelfth Night or Much Ado.