Titus, written and directed by Julie Taymore, is a revelation. Like most students of Shakespeare, I had always thought Titus Andronicus the weakest of his plays, its Grand Guignol effects obviously the fruits of an apprentice hand. I think so still. But it took Miss Taymore to show us that even Shakespeare’s prentice work was way ahead of its time. In her Titus, for instance, he reveals himself to have been a sort of postmodern ironist four centuries avant le lettre. And Titus Andronicus is almost the only play in the Shakespearean canon for which no source has ever been found, which makes its very modern sort of post- modernism all the more remarkable. Almost never original in inventing plots, Shakespeare’s most original play is also the most derivative, and the most packed with obviously theatrical effects.

Miss Taymore tricks out this grisly circus of a play with even more of them. Shakespeare’s Roman world becomes a weird amalgam of ancient and modern as we see an anonymous figure in a street reading a newspaper whose headline proclaims: “Thousands Mourn Death of Caesar” The struggle over the succession between Saturninus (Alan Cumming) and Bassianus (James Frain) is conducted like an election campaign, with the candidates addressing crowds from a 1930s style microphone which is labeled “SPQR News.” Andronicus’s grandson wears a high school jacket with the image of the Roman she-wolf embroidered on the back. All this, unlike similar sorts of innovations in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet or Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night, suggests a kind of delight in the greatness that the play falls short of.

The result is not so much an interpretation of it as an eager seizing upon its weaknesses as an excuse for showing us a back way into Shakespeare. For underneath its macabre surface, the strong iambic thrum of the inimitable, the heart-breaking Shakespearean line beats like the heart of a baby on an ultrasound scan. Anthony Hopkins, in particular, in the title role, shows as few actors do anymore that he knows how to speak the verse. The sheer sound of the poetry, inferior as it is by later Shakespearean standards, as much as the skill of his Hannibal Lecter-like performance (another postmodern touch) manages almost to make Andronicus look like a prototypical Lear — a Lear on speed, perhaps — whose griefs and revenges take on something of the same emblematic quality.

In case you don’t know it, the story goes like this. Andronicus is a Roman general who returns from a war against the Goths, leading the Goth queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange), and her three sons in triumph through Rome. The victor’s ritual requires that he sacrifice the queen’s eldest son. She begs for his life, but Andronicus is unmoved. She swears a terrible vengeance, which is unexpectedly furthered when the new emperor, Saturninus, finds himself attracted to her. Soon she is made empress and from this position of power, she is able to plot with her two remaining sons, Chiron and Demetrius (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Matthew Rhys) and her black lover, Aaron (Harry Lennix), the utter destruction of the Andronici.

The revenge plot is laughably over the top. First the loutish punks Chiron and Demetrius (somehow one had always imagined Goths as being more the strong, silent type) murder Bassianus, Andronicus’s son-in-law and the emperor’s brother, and put the blame on two of the old man’s three sons, who are condemned to death. Then they rape Andronicus’s daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), cut out her tongue and chop off her hands so that she can neither tell nor write who violated her. To top off their revenge, Aaron tells Andronicus that he can save his two accused sons from execution by cutting off his own hand. After he has done so, the lads are executed anyway.

The old man appears to go mad with grief, but we know he’s not to be got the better of by a mere Goth. Tamora, hoping to drive him further into madness, appears in the guise of the goddess of revenge, along with Chiron and Demetrius as Murder and Rapine. Pretending to believe in these ludicrous visions, Andronicus asks Revenge if he can take Murder and Rapine home with him. Having got them there, he kills Chiron and Demetrius and bakes their flesh into a pie, which he then serves up to their mother before killing her too. The emperor kills him, but Lucius (Angus McFadyen), his one remaining son, kills the emperor and becomes emperor himself. Aaron is executed after he offers up a detailed confession in return for mercy for his son by the late empress.

It has always been difficult to take such stuff seriously. Ovid’s tale of the rape of Philomel includes the detail of the cutting out of the tongue; the sons baked into a pie derives from the Greek legend of Atreus and Thyestes. In the safe obscurity of such ancient legends, these stories are poetic and symbolic, but they cannot survive the translation to the relatively realistic medium of the stage — still less to that of the movies — without appearing comic in their excess. But such comic excess is the very essence of post-modernism. When we see Anthony Hopkins grinning maniacally in a chef’s toque and wheeling onto the stage an obscenely huge and unappetising meatloaf pie, we see that the only way to play such stuff is to revel in its very implausibility. The postmodern expectations of a turn-of-the-century audience liberate the filmmaker from the need to make the patently unreal look real.

This liberation also sweeps away the problem of what might be for our age the play’s most objectionable element. Cannibalism? Rape? No problem. But show a black man as an unrepentant, unregenerate villain, preying on whites and you have gone beyond the bounds of taste in our time. Unless, that is, the cannibalism and the rape and all the rest of the histrionic excess in such a tale serves to detoxify the black villain. He is allowed to pronounce his blood-curdling villainy (“If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my soul”) and make it even more blood-curdling because the context makes it clear that it is meant to be seen as merely theatrical. Of course the villain is black: by making him so obviously a stereotype, in such a context as this, we undermine the power of the stereotype.

Of course, other things are undermined with it, but this far along in the post-modern era we can hardly blame Julie Taymore for that.

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