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A Wild Ride

A stylized Titus is rescued from the Shakespearean rubbish heap.

Titus, Julie Taymor's gorgeous film version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, may be the most lavish release of last year...and also the most perverse, on nearly every front.

It's easy to see why there has never been a feature version of this tragedy. Of the most commonly mounted Shakespearean plays, at least five -- Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Othello -- are tragedies, which seem inevitably to be accorded a higher degree of respect than the comedies. Yet even among the remaining five tragedies (or six, depending on whose classification you use), Titus Andronicus has long been the poor relation that no one likes to admit to. In 1678, one Edward Ravenscroft published an "improved" version, calling the original "a heap of rubbish." And in our own century, T.S. Eliot deemed the play "one of the stupidest and most uninspired" ever written. Indeed, for years scholars sought unsuccessfully to disprove Shakespeare's authorship, as though the rest of the canon might be sullied by exposure to this "ridiculous play," as critic Alfred Harbage calls it.

But the play's faults actually make sense when you consider that this was, in all likelihood, the first attempt at a tragedy by a fledgling playwright looking for a hit. If the language seems recognizably Shakespearean -- Thomas Kyd never sounded this good -- the overall aesthetic resembles the more lurid plays that Elizabethan audiences wanted, with a plot that often treats the characters as automata whose main purpose is to suffer, quite graphically, onstage.

And a hit it was -- by most accounts, the biggest success Shakespeare had during his lifetime -- since precisely those qualities that critics abhor endeared Titus Andronicus to the public. Those same qualities make the play a particularly interesting choice at the close of the millennium. (Tituswas released in Los Angeles late last year, in time for award nominations.) Referring to another modern production, Harbage called Titus not a tragic hero but "a man thrust blindfold into a room full of whirring knives." Sound familiar? Well, it certainly would if you've seen any of Don Coscarelli's Phantasm films or Clive Barker's various Hellraiser movies, in which Harbage's metaphor is quite literal. For its part, Titus Andronicus is a bit like a sixteenth-century splatter film. (Or, as Thomas Pynchon described a similar play in The Crying of Lot 49, "a Roadrunner cartoon in blank verse.")

While it might seem ridiculous to worry about plot spoilers when describing a 400-year-old work by the world's best-known author, so few people have actually read (or bothered to remember) Titus Andronicus that we will try to be discreet. Titus (Anthony Hopkins) is a Roman general who has just returned from a victorious campaign against the Goths. To avenge the deaths of his men, he makes a ritual sacrifice of the eldest son of the vanquished queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange), despite the queen's pleas for mercy.

The Roman emperor happens to have recently died, and the people clamor for Titus to take the throne. But Titus is nothing if not a by-the-book kind of guy, so he insists that the throne go to the emperor's eldest son, Saturninus (Alan Cumming). In one of those plot manipulations that seem simply capricious, Saturninus chooses as his empress Titus's daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), who is betrothed to his younger brother, Bassianus (James Frain). When Bassianus and Lavinia try to run away together with the help of the rest of Titus's family, Titus slays one of his own sons rather than allow his kin to defy imperial will.

Having served the purpose of forcing Titus to kill his son, this plot development suddenly disappears. Saturninus changes his mind, allowing Lavinia to return to Bassianus and choosing the captured queen as his bride. Tamora immediately goes from essentially slave status to being the woman behind the most powerful man in Rome. And she decides to use that power to seek revenge on Titus, who so coldly rejected her pleas for mercy in the opening scenes.

In a simultaneous clunky development, the likes of which you would be hard-pressed to find in the later plays, it turns out that Tamora has a secret lover -- Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix). Aaron has been milling around in the background all along, not saying a word, but suddenly we find him addressing the audience like a narrator and becoming one of the most important movers of the action. Tamora and Aaron now manipulate Tamora's punkish sons, Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys), to stick it to Titus in every possible way. They do it well enough that Titus is slowly driven mad and eventually outdoes them all in creative ickiness. (Without getting specific, let us suggest that Hopkins was cast as much for association with the character of Hannibal Lecter as for his acting skills.) Tamora is driven by vengeance -- but who knows what moves Aaron. Is he motivated by bitterness over his racial ostracism? By simple, inexplicable evil? (Consider his final words: "If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul." Now that's a villain!) All of this works itself out through disembowelment, throat-slitting, dismemberment, rape and culinary delights that are unlikely to show up on Emeril's show.

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