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. (Titus was 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.
Although sensationalism generally has a negative connotation, sometimes sensationalism is, well, sensational. There's a reason why this stuff works, century after century. Every era has its revenge tragedies, its Grand Guignol, its slasher films. Taymor -- who, perhaps ironically, made her name mounting Disney's Lion King on Broadway -- knows that this stuff always has its place, and she knows that it's of a kind with circuses. So she gooses up this three-ring Titus with every flashy trick known to directors.
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We've all seen various anachronistic Shakespearean productions: On film, Ian McKellan moved Richard III to the 1930s, and Kenneth Branagh transplanted Hamlet to sometime in the late nineteenth century. But Taymor effortlessly intertwines the modern and the ancient in a way that negates period. Motorcycles ride alongside chariots, radio-news microphones stand cheek by jowl with altars of smoldering entrails, Chiron and Demetrius play video games while people are run through with spears. The approach is the opposite of what Orson Welles did in Macbeth -- placing everything on a nearly blank soundstage -- but the effect is nearly the same. Taymor moves Titus completely out of time and into all time.
Hopkins seems quite at home here, combining his Shakespearean chops and his Lecter madness. The cast is generally first-rate, though Colm Feore is simply too bland as Titus's brother, and Rhys and Rhys Meyers are sometimes a bit much. But the standout is surely Lennix, who has the most interesting role. That Shakespeare links Aaron's blackness with his evil -- at least in wordplay -- may be yet another reason that Titus Andronicus doesn't get performed much these days. But taken as a whole, Aaron's character seems simultaneously both inexplicably evil and nobly human. And the film looks and sounds gorgeous. Stylistically, Elliot Goldenthal's score goes from Nino Rota to Mahler to frenetic hard bop without missing a beat. If there is a slipup in Taymor's overall design, it's in the occasional blatant fantasy shots she occasionally inserts: Sorry, but a lamb with a human head just can't look convincing.
Commercially, you have to wonder just who the filmmakers expect will show up for this wild ride. The older art-house crowd will likely be repulsed by the grotesqueness and violence, while those who would revel in its stylish outrageousness are unlikely to even realize what lurks beneath its classy facade. But Titus's bizarre commercial prospects don't change the fact that Taymor has rescued this disreputable, neglected runt from the Shakespearean litter, staging it in a way that revels in its shortcomings and, in most cases, makes them virtues.