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March 16, 2016

Steff Reviews: Titus Andronicus at the Pop Up Globe, Auckland

Concerts & Grog Fests, Steff

pop up globe

pop up globe

Image from Becca Kennett (geckooo94 on Instagram)

Recently, a crazy man named Miles Gregory had a crazy idea: to build a pop-up replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and plonk it down in the middle of Auckland. Being a bit of a shakespeare fan and a huge fan of crazy people and their crazy ideas, my husband and I immediately jumped on the Kickstarter to support the endeavour. The Pop Up Globe was going to run a month-long Shakespeare festival in March to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s life.

It turned out that so many people were so enthusiastic about this idea that the Pop-Up Globe got enough corporate sponsorship they were able to get the thing up-and-running without the Kickstarter. So they cancelled the campaign, but not before offering everyone who’d pledged a free ticket to a show of their choice. We decided to use that ticket for 12th Night, and that we would be a bit indulgent and book ourselves for an ultimate Shakespeare experience – seats in a Lord’s Box directly above the stage – the rooms where, in Shakespeare’s time, royalty and nobility would have sat to enjoy the plays without having to rub noses with the plebs. We managed to rope some other awesome people to joining us, leaving the cost of this extravagance not much more than a ticket to a decent international metal band. Worth it? Oh hell yes.

We chose Titus Andronicus because none of us had ever seen it before, and because we love anything with a bit of gore. No, it lacks the fine storytelling finesse of Macbeth, or the memorable humanism of Romeo & Juliet. It’s confusing, and full of ghastly people doing horrific things. T.S Eliot once called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” It is a play without redemption, and yet, it is all the more delightful for the ugly spell it casts upon you. It doesn’t hurt that director Benjamin Henson injects a healthy dose of black comedy into the script, giving this usually absurd plot a new context and a framework that make it engaging to a fresh audience.

pop up globe auckland

View of the Globe from the Pop-Up Bar.

Before the show we relaxed in the associated “pop-up” garden bar outside. The Church Road Winery have done a lovely job of creating a lively and comfortable space in what is usually a crappy, dirty parking lot. The only complaint from my group is the lack of beer choices on the menu. And no, “Heineken” is not a choice. It is never a choice.

Once inside, we were escorted to our box on the upper level. A line of cushioned, Tudor-style chairs were set up along the opening, and a table and sideboard were set up to hold our food, drinks, and belongings. A waiter emerged from the curtains and took our food and drink orders. This done, we could enjoy the spectacle as it unfolded.

The setting had a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max feel, with the cast members wearing tattered rags and fighting with sticks. A gnarled crown marked Saturninus (James Roque) as the new emperor. The only props on stage were aluminium ladders, a couple of wooden scaffolding planks, and some torn construction netting. The pre-show entertainment consisted of a strange and unnerving game of rugby, with the players grunting and leaping as they fought over the “prize” – a mangy teddy bear.

Paul Lewis gave an impressive performance as Titus, the celebrated General who returned to Rome only to have this bitter tragedy play out. I was also enthralled by Jason Hodzelmans’ horned Aaron, the Moor who served as Tamora’s lover in some rather racy scenes that had the whole theatre in stitches. But to me, the standout actor was Cole Jenkins, who played Tamora, the captured Gothic Queen who orchestrated the rape of Titus’ daughter Lavinia and the killing of his sons for the crime. Jenkins doesn’t attempt to camp up his performance, using only the visual clues of a frilled skirt (more of a war-kilt, really) and his gaffer-tape breasts to mark him as a woman. Instead, he focuses on the raw emotions and visceral reactions of his cruel character, and plays her with aplomb. The play is as much Tamora’s tragedy as it is Titus’, for in the end, she unwittingly commits an unforgivable sin, eating a pie (or in this case, a rather exquisite-looking cupcake) containing the cooked remains of her own sons.

In typical Jacobean style, the cast is all men, and this fact when placed in the strange post-apocalyptic setting in front of a modern audience, gives the play a fascinating, surreal quality. From the moment Tamora is “made” onstage (using some handy gaffer tape), the audience is enthralled. The troupe employs many elements of black comedy, leading to some truly delightful moments in amongst all the gore (the dog-racing on sticks being one moment that comes to mind!) I got a little thrill every time one of the actors looked up at us, speaking their lines as though they were directed to us. They swung through the groundlings and even up into the stands and boxes, making not just the enormous stage but the entire theatre their playground. The result felt more intimate than perhaps any other theatre performance I’ve ever seen, even though we were way up above the stage in the heavens.

Seeing Shakespeare performed always makes me feel suspended in time, but this feeling is intensified when sitting (or standing) in the Pop-Up Globe. An exact size replica of the Second Globe theatre (built after the first burned down in 1613) the space is surprisingly small and intimate. Spectators sit in the round, surrounding the stage on all sides and some (the Groundlings, so-called because they stand on the ground) even leaning up against it. The stage takes up fully one half of the ground-space, and the theatre is open to the elements, leaving the actors the additional challenges of competing against traffic noise and passing Hare-Krishna troupes.

For the actors and producers of these plays, the arrangement of the Globe presents unique challenges. Actors have to perform in the round, directing needs to allow as many people as possible to understand what’s happening on stage. There’s nowhere to hide. There can be no fancy tricks. And that’s why it works, and why Henson’s treatment works so well. It’s raw and visceral and appeals to the basest human qualities of love and hate and revenge.

I noticed the character of Marius (Titus’ brother) has been deleted, which was a great decision, as it omitted one more confusing element from the play.

The second act contained the most wrenching moment of the play, when Titus discovers his mutilated daughter, and then unceremoniously sacrifices his own hand that his sons may be spared, only to then have their heads dumped on stage in plastic garbage bags. This is only topped by Tamora’s screech when she realises she’s eaten her beloved son. This is not theatre for the faint-of-heart.

A standing ovation seemed the only fitting way to honour the actors who brought the whole experience to life. The Pop-Up Globe is an amazing venue and I’ve heard it’s going to be touring the world soon. You won’t want to miss it. What an amazing night! I’m forever grateful to live in a city where I can experience such wicked things, and that I have friends who, when one says, “Lets get a box and watch Shakespeare”, answer with “fuck yes!”

The Pop-Up Globe has been so popular they’ve been going for nearly three months. There are performances all through April, and then it’s gone forever. So if you’re in Auckland and get the chance, GO! It’s a pretty unique experience.

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