Plays, Poems & New Writing Story

A world in which candles represent life: designing Titus Andronicus

  Shakespeare’s goriest tragedy is brought to life for the first time in our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

4 minute read

Titus Andronicus is renowned as the most violent of William Shakespeare’s plays: a bloody tale of vengeance, including murders, severed limbs and some cannibalism thrown in for good measure. This year marks the first time that this play has been performed in our indoor, candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse since its opening in 2014, creating a whole new atmosphere for this shocking story.

Named in honour of our founder, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is located next to the Globe Theatre and is a more intimate venue, based on indoor theatres of Shakespeare’s time, with the thrust stage illuminated by over one hundred beeswax candles.

The set of Titus Andronicus in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Musicians sit in the balcony.

The set for Titus Andronicus in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photographer: Camilla Greenwell

In this new production of Titus Andronicus, the candles ‘represent bodies or life’, says Co-Designer Rosie Elnile. ‘The flame feels like the consciousness, the wax the flesh and the fat [and] the wick the bones’, she explains. Fellow Co-Designer Grace Venning concurs: ‘materiality has been at the heart of the conversation from the very beginning, examining our physical and psychological responses to wax and flame.’ The designers found themselves ‘interested in the fuzzy sticky line between metaphor and material reality’, ensuring that ‘the materials are allowed to have emotional resonances as objects.’

As Candle Consultant and Lighting Designer Ali Hunter explains, the candles ‘fulfil a dual role of lighting performers and populating a scene. They become observers and obstacles, heightening the theatricality of the play. The fact that the space is full of candles also provides lots of opportunity for big dramatic sequences…’

Speaking of dramatic sequences, the violence throughout the show – and there is a lot of violence in Titus Andronicus – is showcased not through the usual prosthetics and stage blood, but instead upon each character’s candle. ‘I think the joy and terror of the show comes from not knowing when or how the violence will strike’, warns Grace, resulting in a more psychological approach to the various murders and dismemberments. ‘I’m interested in the physical sensations audiences might feel, individually and collectively’, in response to the action unfolding on stage, ‘particularly the violence.’

‘I think the joy and terror of the show comes from not knowing when or how the violence will strike’

This production isn’t without a sense of humour though. Grace admits that ‘in rehearsals I’ve found myself shocked and disgusted one minute and crying tears of laughter the next.’

A group of actors surround a dinner table on a stage lit by candles.

‘I think this is a site-specific design’, says Rosie. Photographer: Camilla Greenwell

‘I think this is a site-specific design’, says Rosie, ‘it couldn’t happen or make sense anywhere other than a candlelit theatre’. The set design, Grace explains, is ‘an intervention in the [Sam Wanamaker Playhouse] rather than a classic theatre ‘set’’. Rosie agrees: ‘it feels like a piece of modern art in a heritage gallery, disrupting the space rather than blending in.’

‘The songs ‘do such a good job of examining a modern audience’s expectations’’

For inspiration, the Design team looked to live art including Marina Abramovic’s performance Rhythm 0, the 1977 film Suspiria (‘mostly for the colours’), and visited a nearby candle factory. ‘It was an amazing trip’, says Rosie, ‘I felt very privileged to be in this workshop that made everyday objects with such care, love and precision.’ To Rosie and the team, ‘candles are kind of magic’, making the trip feel ‘like visiting an alchemist ‘.

Spread throughout Titus Andronicus are the ‘amazing’ songs by Bourgeois and Maurice, arranged by Jasmin Kent Rodgman. These songs not only touch on the horrors of the story, but also add to the play’s dark sense of humour. As Grace explains, the songs ‘do such a good job of examining a modern audience’s expectations and experience of watching Shakespeare’s bloodiest play.’

Three actors stand laughing and holding candles and knives

Titus Andronicus ‘has this crackly energy about it’. Photographer: Camilla Greenwell

Titus Andronicus ‘has this crackly energy about it, bringing audiences into the fold and then shocking them with the twisted brilliance of Shakespeare’s writing’, describes Grace, ‘the dark comedy and deep emotion of the songs explore the relationship between entertainment and bloodlust in a really exciting way. [Director Jude Chistian] and the company have played with the comforting nature of the candlelight to draw you in, make you laugh and break your heart all at once.’


Titus Andronicus plays in our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 15 April 2023 as part of our Winter 2022/23 season.