Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



Though it has a few defenders (who have abstract theories regarding violence as symbolism) and not a few dissenters who are sure Shakespeare didn’t write it, {{Titus Andronicus{{ is widely held to be the Bard’s worst play, the only rivals to that dubious honor being King John and Timon of Athens. To me, it’s a toss-up between Titus and Timon. I’ve seen the play only once, as part of the BBC’s complete series, and it was rough going, let me tell you. Whoever wrote it, it appeared early in Shakespeare’s time, and if he wrote it (and I believe he did; I don’t hold with any of that nonsense that disputes his authorship of all his plays and poetry), it seems to have been a commercial potboiler, which makes sense to me, as he probably needed the money while establishing himself as a playwright. It is incredibly violent and distasteful, and contains not a single character who is even remotely sympathetic. It exists on the moral and artistic level of slasher films of today: Think of it as Friday the XIII, or A Nightmare on Via Appia. Naturally, it was very popular when it first appeared; I’ll bet it sold more tickets than Hamlet and Othello combined, to the same sort of people who have ensured that there will soon be a Saw VII, VIII, and IX. But it’s not my sort of thing.

So why did I want to see this 2 hour and 40 minute adaptation? Two words: Julie Taymor, the genius behind The Lion King musical, and Across the Universe. (She’s in post-production on The Tempest, and I can hardly wait!) Whatever the film was, I was pretty sure it would be a visual stunner.

And boy, was I right! From the very first frames, this movie is a knock-out. It is so ravishing to look at, in fact, that I was even able to get somewhat involved in the ridiculous and repulsive plot. The setting is some strange hybrid of ancient and modern Rome, sort of Caligula meets Fellini. Chariots and horses mix with motorcycles and Thunderbirds and WWI tanks, warriors dress in Roman leather and breastplates, civilians dress in 1930ish suits. It reminded me a bit of Ian McKellen’s Richard III set in an imaginary, Nazified England. Every setting is amazing to look at. This is a work of vaulting imagination. Anthony Hopkins is very good as Titus, and Jessica Lange holds her own as Queen Tamora.

I was a bit puzzled about what drew Taymor to this bloodfest, but maybe she saw it as a challenge, and I don’t doubt that she could take just about anything and make it wonderful to look at. (I’d love to have seen her production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.) Here is a play where there is mutilation and murder, rape and cannibalism. Before the play even starts, Titus has lost 21 sons in battle, and he soon kills one of the remaining four for bringing dishonor on his family. And his woes are only getting started. But he pretty much gets the last word. Somebody once said that revenge is a dish best served cold. Titus serves his piping hot. (If he invites you to dinner, I’d advise you to skip the meatloaf.) Hopkins has some fun with this scene, at one point giving us a tooth-gnashing moment stolen from Hannibal Lecter.