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Julie Taymor takes on "Titus"

By Steve Vineberg

JANUARY 24, 2000:  Titus, Julie Taymor's treatment of Shakespeare's earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, is two hours and 40 minutes long, but it's such an extravagant camp spectacle that it's never boring.

Columns of Roman warriors execute a balletic march across the courtyard of a bombed-out, futurist apartment block reminiscent of the setting of Orson Welles's The Trial. As Saturninus, Rome's newly elected leader, Alan Cumming makes his initial appearance in a red and black leather suit, his hairstyle midway between early punk and Louise Brooks. Jessica Lange, playing the vengeful Tamora, the captured queen of the Goths, sports a range of drag-show specials Milena Canonero designed; my favorite is the nippled breastplate she wears to court, which sets off the gold snaking through her hair and the gold paint around her eyes. Her destructive sons (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Matthew Rhys), who are stuck in a permanent collective snit, queen around like refugees from the set of Velvet Goldmine. The face of Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix), who becomes Tamora's lover and evil confederate after she marries Saturninus, is striated so that he looks, in close-up, like a cracked bust. There are smoky red explosions and watery orgies and a Fellini-esque bit where an alleged emissary from the court conveys his message via a traveling carnival sideshow.

Now it's easy to argue that Shakespeare himself provided most of the outré touches in this material. The Greek tragic playwrights weren't available to the Elizabethans, so when they imitated the classics, it was the Roman Seneca -- whose own plays were bizarre, blood-bubbling takes on Euripides -- they were copying, and Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's most Seneca-influenced play. (His specific influence was Thyestes.) Titus (Anthony Hopkins), the general who hauls Tamora and her brood home after a triumphant battle, kills one of his own sons for disloyalty after offering one of hers as a grateful sacrifice to the gods (and setting her vengeance in motion). When the two remaining Goth princes rape his daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser), hack off her hands, and tear out her tongue, Titus pays out the whole family by baking the boys in a pie and serving it to Tamora and Saturninus for lunch. And did I mention that he removes his own hand in a failed effort to ransom his son, whom the princes have framed for the murder of Lavinia's husband?

Certainly you couldn't say Taymor has wrecked the play, which, despite contemporary efforts to bring it into the canon of Shakespeare's masterpieces, remains clumsy and fatuous. (Even Brian Bedford's acclaimed production at Stratford, Ontario, in the '80s failed to convince me that I'd sidestepped one of the great ones.) But her setting -- which evokes half a dozen different periods and features a bewildering frame involving a sober-faced preadolescent (Osheen Jones) playing with toy soldiers (later he takes on the role of Titus's grandson) -- doesn't rescue the play either. This is Shakespeare done in a catch-all late-RSC style, like the Ian McKellen Richard III, and it has the added problem that it doesn't feel much like a movie; the big, hewn-block sequences seem to be taking place on some massive stage in Taymor's head. I had a terrific time watching Taymor's Broadway production of The Lion King, which is like a toy box filled with the theatrical treasures she borrowed from Bread & Puppeteer Peter Schumann and Indonesian shadow puppetry and many other places, but her Titus is risible. And when she displays Jessica Lange -- well cast, with a hornet's sting in her line readings -- in outfits that seem calculated to make her look ridiculous, the laugh died in my throat.

Anthony Hopkins isn't at his best here; he gives one of those self-conscious performances -- like the one he gave on stage in Equus -- that seems less concerned with the character than with the gorgeous sound of his impeccably trained voice. (His most amusing moment comes when he quotes himself as Hannibal Lecter during his attack on the strung-up Goth princes.) Alan Cumming's acting is basically an extension of the mincing he did as a presenter at last year's Tony Awards -- which was an undigested snippet from his much-admired (though not by me) version of the Master of Ceremonies in Sam Mendes's New York revival of Cabaret. But the Canadian actor Colm Feore brings an imperial tragic dignity to the role of Titus's brother Marcus. Feore and Harry Lennix both vivify the verse and create real characters; Lennix's Aaron comes across like a Harlem intellectual of the '50s. The movie isn't out of control, exactly; I think we see what Taymor intended, and Luciano Tovoli lights it exquisitely. But Feore and Lennix exhibit the sort of control that you can admire -- the sort that puts human beings amid the overdressed marionettes on the landscape of Taymor's movie.

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