What’s the sound of this particular world? “It’s man devouring man, my dear/And who are we to deny it in here?” That couplet, as good a summary of “Titus Andronicus” as any you’ll find, actually comes from “Sweeney Todd.” Sondheim is not exactly known for his Shakespeare scholarship, but “Sweeney” is all about someone who discovers the virtues of popping people into pies, a gruesome trick the title character pulled off 400 years previously at the grotesque climax of “Titus Andronicus.”
Taking note of Tamora’s line, “Here never shines the sun; here nothing breeds, unless the nightly owl or fatal raven” director Lucy Bailey and designer William Dudley swathe the Globe’s Elizabethan back wall and the two giant onstage pillars in black fabric. Black gauze is even suspended across the hitherto permanently open roof. The scene is most definitely set for the stark madness of what should be a terrifying tale of revenge with a multiple body count that makes “Reservoir Dogs” look like a children’s tea party.
If that sounds like exaggeration, consider the fact that 14 characters are murdered, up to and including the title character, who kills one of his own sons and, in a mercy killing, similarly dispatches his daughter Lavinia, who has been raped twice, had her tongue cut out and her hands lopped off so she cannot tell who her attackers were.
From the start, a grizzly, bearded Douglas Hodge is good at suggesting age and rage as Titus, the victorious general returning to Rome with Tamora (Geraldine Alexander), queen of the vanquished goths (cue rock-star big hair). Back home, he falls in line with Roman custom and sacrifices her son in return for the many sons he has lost in war. This is the pivot for the entire play: From there on, Tamora swears revenge and stops at nothing to get it.
Hodge, fatally, doesn’t allow us to see why he makes that fatal choice. But it’s not entirely his fault. Bailey is so intent on showing the collapse of Roman standards via rabble-rousing crowd behavior that she fails to create the severity of the Roman world that’s at the root of the play. Without that, actions appear almost random and the power of the play drains away.
Stranded by the production, Hodge, a vivid Leontes in the RSC’s 2002 “The Winter’s Tale,” opts for broad character-driven choices. As the acts of revenge pile up and hurtle out of control, he’s strong at showing incredulity at the hell in which he is engulfed, particularly in his manic glee where, dressed as a lunatic chef, he serves the baked bodies of Tamora’s evil sons to her in the climactic pie.
He and most of the rest of the company are better with the pauses between words and the generalized passion than with the text itself. That indicates a director not in control of the words.
Clearly, Bailey is filled with ideas — she has more per minute than some directors manage all night — and her staging cannot be accused of being lazy. The production boasts showers of black confetti falling like rain; a contemporary-sounding Django Bates percussion score with heavy drumbeats and death rattles complemented by fearsomely, arcane wind instruments including a serpent, giant natural horns and a set of bagpipes; and supernumeraries wheeling actors around on elevated platforms who constantly jostle the audience standing around the stage (the best place to see any Globe production). What Bailey cannot do is make all these ideas more than diverting.
As in most Globe productions, comedy fares best. In this case, the comedy springs from murders and maiming; one scene features a father, son and brother all competing to chop off their own hand to save two others’ lives.
That spirit helps the two best performances. Alexander brings a self-satisfied viciousness to Tamora, exuberantly lustful and thrilled by her mendacity. As wicked Aaron the Moor, Shaun Parkes seizes his every moment. The role, a dry run for Iago in “Othello,” is one-dimensional, but Parkes calmly uses the language to immensely expressive effect, exulting in his wickedness but never overplaying the emotion at the expense of the words.
“Titus” is a tough assignment. An early play, it lacks the depth provided by insightful soliloquies, the reflective internal monologues Shakespeare developed throughout his writing. But as Deborah Warner’s landmark RSC production in 1988 showed, it is possible to deliver the play’s terror, horror and pity with mounting intensity. Bailey, alas, is so busy staging that the play itself never grips. The tragic sense of inexorability and loss is, well, lost.