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First Nighter: 'Titus Andronicus,' 'Antony and Cleopatra' Expand the Globe

06/14/2014 06:04 am ET | Updated Aug 15, 2014

Scholars aren't certain when William Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, although they favor 1593. They are more certain that it was considered his first major success. This says something about Elizabethan taste, since the play is such a non-stop blood bath. Whether it's the seminal revenge tragedy isn't clear. They didn't become prominent for another decade at least, and then it wasn't Shakespeare, moving on to his romances, who penned (quilled?) them.

Nevertheless, Lucy Bailey, who directed the slay-'em-flay-'em production at the Globe in 2006, has brought it back, and through it she pulls no punches. Nope, in a production that can often be both blood-curdling and rib-tickling, she doesn't shy from graphic examples of hands severed or heads rolling or other ruder eviscerations.

It's all called for in a script, of course, where warrior Titus Andronicus (William Houston), having conquered the Goths, sentences the eldest son Alarbus (Nicholas Karimi) of Goth empress Tamora (Indira Varma) to death. Not taking that lightly at all, Tamora marries Saturninus (Matthew Needham), the son of the late emperor and now emperor.

Her plan is to work from within to get her retribution. To that end she sets her surviving sons Demetrius (Samuel Edward-Cook) and Chiron (Brian Martin) as well as Aaron, a Moor (Obi Abili) loose. One of their undertakings is the rape, be-handing and be-tonguing of Titus's daughter Lavinia (Flora Spencer Longhurst).

Before long but not before Lavinia is reduced to a trembling, handless scarecrow, Titus decides it's his turn to make mincemeat of the marauding Goths. This leads to a cauldron of horrors, including another hand-slicing and the serving of dramatic literature's most chilling blood pudding as a dish fit to be put before an emperor and empress.

So there's not much subtlety going on as Shakespeare charges on, and Bailey only plays that up from the first metallic bangings of the returning soldiers, many also given the task of pushing the prominent victors around on tall rolling platforms. Ratcheting up the scarifying aspects, set and costume designer William Dudley covers those defeated but far from obsequious Goths in tattoos and grime.

Dudley also covers the top of the Globe, which is open to the elements with a splayed velarium. The idea is to darken the venue to match the play's dark intentions. He and Bailey want no mistake made about their maximizing the relentless menace. So Dudley also covers the two pillars on the thrust stage with black fabric and drops a black curtain against the upstage wall.

As Bailey sends her players -- and plenty of smoke -- throughout the groundling area and even into an upper level of the stalls, there's one bright element. It's the Roman drunk, whom Shakespeare pointedly names Bacchus (David Shaw-Parker), but don't think he gets away unscathed. Eventually, scathing is the least of his worries.

Bailey's cast is every bit as bold as their director wishes. Houston is harsh in the early scenes and steely devious in the later ones. Varma seizes all chances to render Tamora superficially the loving wife but all the while cruelly vengeful. Abili steals his sequences as the manipulative Aaron, who does have his way with Tamora. The entire cast goes at it almost literally hammer and tong.

Incidentally, when Marcus Andronicus (Ian Gelder) reports the rape and other ignominies forced on Lavinia, Shakespeare unleashes some of his most thrilling poetry. With everything that's going on, he doesn't stint on the mesmerizing language.

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Director Jonathan Munby wants to be certain his production of Antony and Cleopatra is red-hot. So he's had designer Colin Richmond paint the back wall of the Globe's stage red and send the welcoming musicians out in red costumes. Dancers follow in order to heighten the orgiastic atmosphere prevailing in an Egypt where Cleopatra (Eve Best) and Marc Antony (Clive Wood) are grandly and injudiciously ruling.

They're on fire, too, as Best and Wood bar no holds while playing the great persons relentlessly lusting after each other to their eventual detriment. Thick-chested Wood is a virile, imperious Antony, and Best is a commanding, quick-to-anger Cleopatra. Together, they bring out everything passionately volatile in a love affair that Octavius Caesar (the grand Jolyon Coy), their eventual nemesis, takes time to praise and rightly predict will make them long remembered.

Munby uses the venue fully -- as do all directors understanding the Globe's potential for immersive entertainment. Both Antony's and Caesar's armies (both armies small and representative) constantly thread though the groundling area. The crucial battles, nicely stylized, do take place on the stage. In other special effects, smoke billows, confetti falls, as they do in Titus Andronicus.

The beauty of Antony and Cleopatra is how Shakespeare pits the eventually prevailing direct approach of Octavius and the Romans against the eventually defeated Antony and Cleopatra and yet strongly hints, almost winks, that he favors the torrid Egyptians against the Romans' cool logic.

Perhaps the big giveaway to that sentiment is the fate to which Enobarbus (Phil Daniels) comes when, having abandoned Caesar, he realizes the mistake he's made. And he's the one who delivers the great speech about Cleopatra and her "infinite variety" -- infinite variety that Best does her, uh, best to conjure.

The irony of Shakespeare's tragedies when they're presented at the Globe, which is how he intended many of them to be presented at the earlier Globe, is that they're so entertaining. Obviously, he knew his audiences and knew he could shock and frighten them with his vision of damaged humankind but at the same time realized he needed to provide them with a good time.

That's what Munby provides. He's got singing (Jules Maxwell's music, sung by Melanie Pappenheim and Victoria Couper). He's got the Aline David choreography. He's got a big, capable cast, some of whom play both Caesar's followers and Antony's and all of whom are in on the fun that can still be inherent in tragedy.

As Shakespeare's fifth act unfolds, he's also got two marvelous death scenes. First, Caesar throws off his mortal coil in Cleopatra's arms, with Wood and Best making the romantic most of it. Then Cleopatra, faced with being led to Rome and paraded as a spoil of war, calls for her asp. That's where Munby has Best do a slow fade that's gorgeously eerie. Has any Cleopatra ever expired in quite this regal a fashion? Doubtful. It must be seen to be believed.

Among the other coups de theatres, there's a moment as the final battles are about to be waged when a tattered, hole-riddled, altogether stunning map falls into view. It's ravaged much like Antony and Cleopatra have allowed their lives to become ravaged by indulgence. Munby's achievement, along with his players and creative team, is that this is all simultaneously made manifest and exhilarating.