ROME FELL to the barbarians, and Shakespeare had something similar in mind in his early blood-soaked revenge play Titus Andronicus, where imperial order is overcome by natural savagery. Julie Taymor now follows her own 1994 stage production of this little-seen work with a remarkably imaginative adaptation of the tragedy initiated by the return of General Titus (Anthony Hopkins) from defeating the northern Goths.
written and directed by Julie Taymor
with Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Alan Cumming
opens January 21 at Cinerama
Titus returns with captives Aaron, Tamora (Jessica Lange), and her sons to a Rome in political upheaval. Evil Saturninus (Alan Cumming) becomes Emperor, then wrongfully covets Titus' daughter Lavinia before marrying Tamora instead. Newly empowered Tamora is then in a position to avenge Titus' sacrifice of one of her sons; her other sons rape and mutilate Lavinia—giving Titus the same revenge motive. Meanwhile, Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix) maliciously seeks revenge on everyone (and also continues his affair with Tamora).
This isn't the cheerful terrain of Shakespeare in Love, where the Bard was amusingly told by sadistic young future playwright John Webster that all Webster's dramas would be just as bloody and gory as Titus Andronicus. (They were.) Of course, in Shakespeare in Love, Will was about to emerge as a mature artist, tackling themes of love and humanity and rejecting the crude formulas of the past. Accordingly, Taymor does her utmost to raise Titus beyond its shallow characterization, creaky plotting, and senseless bloodletting with a grand visual style.
Taymor's Rome is a combination of Fellini, deco fascism, and Mad Max, with motorcycles, electric guitars, and video-game arcades, where a wonderful oversized throne dwarfs the unfit Saturninus. Her crowd scenes and orgiastic parties nicely convey the chaos and decadence of "headless Rome." But the play's roughly sketched characters only prefigure Shakespeare's later, richer roles— making it of more interest to scholars than audiences—so why did she select this problematic work?
"Rome is but a wilderness of tigers," Titus despairs, a key line for Taymor, who's determined to show how the supposedly civilized Romans—more than the unwashed Goths—are the true savages. She frames her story with a proscenium-breaking modern young witness (who becomes Titus' grandson) pointedly indicting our own age's culture of violence-as-entertainment. It's a valid argument, often spectacularly made, although Taymor's spectacle does tend to overwhelm Titus' few subtle moments (and the performances of a somewhat ill-matched cast). Finally, however, the uneven tone of Titus corresponds to that of its imperfect source material. Taymor plays it like Mortal Kombat or Doom, then provides a coda of hope and mercy signaling that the revenge game is finally over.