Titus/Interview with Julie Taymor
Friday, January 28, 2000
With the play Titus Andronicus, a young William Shakespeare proved that he could give the public what it wanted. But in satisfying the Elizabethan audience's appetite for gruesome entertainment, Shakespeare created a blood soaked play that was condemned as rubbish. But one man's trash is another's treasure. According to director Julie Taymor, Shakespeare's juxtaposition of heightened drama, ruthless violence and absurdist black comedy offended earlier generations and made the play difficult to stage yet it is precisely those qualities that fascinated her and convinced her that the play was ripe for adaptation to film. And so she made Titus.
Taymor makes no apologies for the Bard's youthful endeavor. Instead, she champions its artistry.
JULIE TAYMOR: "There is an uncomfortable balance of humor and tragedy in Titus that is unsettling to us, to anybody, but it is very common in our works today."
Common in art and common in the way TV news places images of real violence next to commercials asking us to kill bugs dead or get the whitest whites. Titus Andronicus is a play that's always intrigued me. When I was in college, I began writing a kind of Mad Max screen adaptation of Titus Andronicus in which the action would be played out amongst street gangs in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world. What I wanted to tap into was Shakespeares notion that "we but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague their inventor." I wanted to show that violence as entertainment has been passed down through the centuries and is likely to continue into the future. Fortunately, my script never saw the light of day but Julie Taymor's did and she confronts similar issues with superior artistry.
It's important to note that back in Shakespeare's day, nothing could be too bloody for theatergoers many of whom had probably witnessed public executions. To compete with such real violence, stage actors would hide bags of blood or animals guts in their garments then rip them open on stage for a gory effect. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare went beyond mere stage devices to create a play filled with savage brutality. Titus (played in the film by Anthony Hopkins) is a returning war hero who sets the violence in motion by ignoring the entreaties of his prisoner Tamora (Jessica Lange) and ordering the human sacrifice of her eldest son. Tamora, along with her Moorish lover Aaron (Harry J. Lennix in a marvelous mix of Machiavellian evil and emerging black pride), plots a merciless revenge on the house of Andronicus and drives Titus to madness. What ensues is a dozen or so murders, a rape in which the victim has her tongue cut out and hands cut off, and a banquet in which the missing guests are served up in a pie. By now it should be clear that Titus is not for the squeamish.
The play reveals a young artist's experimentation with themes that he would later tackle with greater maturity. Titus is the forerunner of Lear, a good man who in the name of what is right and good causes more harm than a bad man could; and Aaron the Moor is nothing less than a rough draft of such future artists in evil as Iago and Richard III. But Julie Taymor admires the Bard's youthful endeavor. Through relentless horror, she says, the undeniable poetry of human tragedy emerges in full force, demanding that we examine the very root of violence.
In bringing this rarely performed Shakespeare play to the screen, Taymor directly confronts the violence and raises questions about how we tend to make entertainment of our violence. She opens the film, as she did her 1994 stage production, in a contemporary kitchen. To the sounds of TV violence, a wild child engages in an escalating war game with his action figures and lavishly tops the carnage with ketchup. His play acting has a terrifying ferocity and lack of control. Is this the result of TV violence, video games and movies? Before we can answer that question, a hulking figure tears the child away from his make believe battlefield and thrusts him into the real violence of Titus' world where he takes on the role of Titus' grandson Lucius. Taymor sets this early scene in the Roman Coliseum where Titus and his soldiers arrive victorious from war. And what a perfect place to begin her tale.
JULIE TAYMOR: "The Coliseum represents in the movie as
beginning and end, the archetypical theater of violence, theater of
cruelty, where violence as entertainment reached its apex."
In one swift move, Taymor blends the past and present, and establishes the boy as our eyes and ears in this arena of violence. We evolve with him from innocent child to passive witness and finally to compassionate observer with a chance to change the future.
Taymor's film benefits from a collision of styles and time periods, and from the bold, towering production design of Dante Ferretti. Taymor rivets us to the screen with her startling images and lively interplay of past and present. Horse drawn chariots mingle with motorcycles, ancient ruins stand next to modern architecture and costumes are culled from various centuries. Taymor delivers a film that provocatively mixes reality and highly stylized imagery. Sometimes her elaborate production design distracts from the content of the play and her MTV montages are jarringly out of place yet in the end she succeeds in showing us how clearly Shakespeare's themes resonate today and how contemporary his attitude toward violence is. His depiction of violence is in turn shocking, absurd, playful and terrifying. In a scene where Titus and young Lucius talk about the killing of a fly, Taymor shows us that Shakespeare could encompass all of the above and be achingly sad to boot.
Tamora: "Ill find a day to massacre them all."
And that day comes quickly as Tamora plots a merciless revenge. We understand the rage she feels over losing one child but when she encourages her surviving sons to rape Titus' daughter, we have to ask an important question.
JULIE TAYMOR: "How do we differentiate revenge from justice?"
Tamora: "Remember boys, I poured forth tears in vain to save your brother but fierce Andronicus would not relent, therefore away with her and the worse to her the better love from me."
JULIE TAYMOR: "It's a rite of passage from innocence to action to redemption."
And that's what makes Shakespeare's play superior to many contemporary works says Julie Taymor. He offers a tale soaked in blood in order to make us see how powerful blood is in binding families together. In exploring the blood ties that drive people to war and vengeance, Shakespeare offers insights and complexities whereas films and TV often just offer the violence.
JULIE TAYMOR: "It's just entertainment with no consequence. This one is all about consequence."
And when faced with these consequences, Taymor hopes that viewers, like Titus' grandson, will make the right choice about how they should act.
Taymor's Titus brings Shakespeare to vivid screen life. She reinvents the play in a way that captures Shakespeare's intent without being a slave to the text. Like Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew), Roman Polanski (Macbeth) and Baz Luhrmann (Romeo and Juliet), Taymor knows how to translate the Bard to a new visual medium so that a new generation can appreciate his wit, his insight into human nature and his timeless artistry.
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