With 14 murders, mutilation and a final scene in which revenge is served to a mother as a pie containing the flesh of her two sons, Titus Andronicus is arguably Shakespeare’s bloodiest play.
But a staging at The Globe theatre in London is proving too much, even for a modern audience supposedly desensitised by computer game violence and video nasties.
Reports of faintings, nauseous episodes and sleepless nights have seen Lucy Bailey’s production become one of the venue’s most talked-about shows of all time, leaving The Independent no choice but to see how much could be stomached.
After an intense opening 20 minutes of drumbeat and billowing smoke, Lavinia, played by Flora Spencer-Longhurst, stumbles on-stage, hands hacked off and tongue cut out. As she implores the audience with her blood-drenched stumps, there is a ripple as one person, then another falls to the ground. One of the first “droppers” is Nicolas Bausson, a 23-year-old student living in London.
“I’ve never passed out at a film or performance before,” he says outside, sat in a wheelchair next to a sick bowl. “But I’m not really comfortable with blood. To imagine what had happened to her [Lavinia]… It’s very disturbing.”
His companion, Clemence Nouaille, 23, was unable to watch the gory scenes. “I knew it was violent but I didn’t think it would be that realistic,” she said. “I hoped I wouldn’t vomit.”
In the interval – after the bagged-up heads of two of Titus’ sons have been plonked centre stage – the lobby buzzes with people’s reactions.
“One guy went down in front of me and I thought he must be joking,” says Simon Curtis, 38, a nurse from London. “Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and the guy next to me had taken a turn.”
There’s little respite in the second half, which begins with the slicing open of Titus’s elderly brother’s forehead and culminates with a double execution, the graphic murder of the Roman Empress Tamora – and the serving of that pie.
The production by Lucy Bailey, first staged in 2006, has been heralded for its ability to immerse the audience, with much of the action happening on the theatre floor. “What excited us about The Globe is that it’s an arena,” Bailey says. “My starting point was that the groundling yard is like a pit of blood – and we wanted to add more blood.”
By the end of the performance, another audience member, Georgina Hope, 28, an actress from London, was wiping away tears. “I felt sick most of the time. It was the gore and the commitment of the performers. You feel part of it, they really get you involved,” she said.
For the fainters, a team of dedicated first-aiders is on hand. One of them, Judy Grimshaw, 58, said five or six people had to be helped out of the theatre before the interval. But, she added, fainting isn’t uncommon at The Globe.
“This is extreme because of the blood. But it’s very rare to have a performance where we don’t have somebody come out. A lot of people come to The Globe after they’ve been out all day. They’re tired, they haven’t eaten properly, they’re dehydrated – and then they stand up for three hours.”