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Titus alla Taymor

By C. Antonio Romero

Anthony Hopkins as Titus

Anthony Hopkins plays Titus

Jessica Lange as Tamora in Titus

Jessica Lange as Tamora

Harry Lennix as Aaron

Harry Lennix plays Aaron

Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight

SAN FRANCISCO, 19 September 2000 - One can see why Julie Taymor would be the chef of choice, if one really wanted to cook up an adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Her extravagant hand with theatrical spices was first revealed to the world at large when she transformed Disney's made-for-the-mass-palate Lion King into an unexpected Broadway delight, completely reimagining it as a rich and complex creation liberally seasoned with spices drawn from African nature and culture. The strong meat of this early Shakespearean outing - a tale of dismemberment, rape, mutilation (even self-mutilation), cannibalism and more - calls for precisely such inventive and bold seasoning.

And Taymor certainly pulls no punches in her treatment. Spectacular sets and costumes draw, sometimes with inspiration, sometimes willy-nilly, on sources ranging from Rome and even Greece to 1930's and 1940's fascist architecure and fashion, and present-day music videos. She expands and reimagines the work much as she did with Disney's Lion King in bringing it to Broadway as an unexpected visual feast (though here, perhaps, her hand is less steady - a lot of inventive flashes, but some elements that are merely excessive or arbitrary).

As far as the acting goes, no one is at their best here - Jessica Lange's degenerate Goth Queen Tamora is probably the best, and Harry J. Lennix as Aaron, the Moor, delivers real intensity , but Anthony Hopkins' Titus is somehow less rich than one might hope, not quite providing the film the anchor one would hope for, while Alan Cumming's Saturninus, aiming for "imperial-decadent", as often hits "silly". But the ultimate problem is not with the direction, the acting, the staging - but with the material. Titus Andronicus is certainly as intense, in its way, as anything in Shakespeare, but it was a very early work, and a clumsy one in some ways compared to his later achievements. Its intensity springs from Shakespeare's refusal to draw the line anywhere, no matter what - like Wes Craven coming up with ever-more-inventive ways for Freddie Krueger to off teenagers. It's very hard to find the humanity in anyone in this play - even sympathetic characters like poor Lavinia are mostly ciphers, and figures like Aaron, and Tamora's sons Alarbus (Raz Degan) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) are so perversely evil as to defy belief. Everything seems calculated to produce maximal horror without regard for integrity of character.

With such material, it's not clear whether Taymor and the cast could have delivered an unalloyed success. Titus isn't a bad film, by any stretch, and it's certainly strange, original, inventive. This meal won't really satisfy - and some palates might find it as unappetizing as the pie that Titus, echoing Hannibal Lecter, cooks up in the last reel - but the curious and the bold may want to taste it just the same.

Two and a half stars

C. Antonio Romero is a writer and engineer based in Silicon Valley. He is the Nouveau editor of

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