First Night: Tutus Andronicus, Shakespeare's Globe, London

Cannibal's feast is the finest show in Globe's new life
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The Independent Culture

Lucy Bailey's exhilarating revival of Titus Andronicus - the second leg of Dominic Dromgoole's inaugural "Edges of Rome" season - is probably the best production I've seen at Shakespeare's Globe in the 10 years of its existence.

The bard's earliest and bloodiest tragedy is notoriously tricky to pull off on stage. The eponymous general and his family pay a grotesque price for his early, Lear-like mistakes and the resulting pile-up of atrocities - rape, mutilation, murder and retributive cannibalism with the Queen of the Goths scoffing her own sons served up in a pie - is so extreme that the proceedings could easily topple into farce.

But here the audience laughs only when given permission by the play, which has an irreverent streak of gallows humour, and by the production, which treats the black comedy with terrific assurance. The control this show exerts over the normally volatile mob of youthful groundlings is so extraordinary that there were times when I felt that Dromgoole must have hired and specially rehearsed this raptly attentive and ideally responsive mob for the press night as a wheeze against the critics.

Bill Dudley's striking design, whichwraps the pillars, the ornate stage decoration and the musicians' galley in funereal black, conjures up a creepy claustrophobic Rome ("a wilderness of tigers"), with echoes of the Pantheon and a gladiatorial arena. This ritualistic space is constantly energised by mobile platforms pushed through the crowed bearing bickering factions and by baleful ceremonials.

Douglas Hodge is magnificent at every stage of Titus's journey. He begins as the punch-drunk, battered vet, out of touch and in denial of his own appalling errors. Then he's the man who pitched past tears of grief into a terrible, beyond-it-all tittering at the hideous black joke of unspeakable suffering. And then he's released into the antic vaudeville of feigned madness and revenge. Hodge is diabolically and winningly funny. When they shoot arrows with messages to the gods, he milks all the farce out of trying to manipulate a bow with one hand and a stump.

The fine cast - who include Shaun Parkas, who gives Aaron, Tamora' s bit of black of rough - weave through the audience in an vigorous implicating dance at the end, which raises the Globe to a new level of seriousness and enjoyment.