by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Making of 'Titus Andronicus'


By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 13 January 1999

 

It is a cold, dank winter's night in the Roman countryside. Anthony Hopkins, in a bathrobe, shambles from the shadows in the garden of an antique, ivy-clad villa into the glare of the lights and bids a young man to summon the guests to dinner.

The scene is the prelude to the bloody end of Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus,' in which Hopkins plays the title role, now being shot at Cinecitta and on location in and around Rome by the American director Julie Taymor. As those familiar with the drama will recall, Titus's banquet is to feature a pie made of the murdered sons of one of the guests, Tamora, queen of the Goths (played by Jessica Lange).

The party concoction is Titus's revenge for Tamora's son's abduction of his daughter, Lavinia, from which she returns, in the words of the most startling stage direction in the entire canon of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, with 'her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd.'

The sibling pie and the atrocities suffered by Lavinia are just two incidents in a ghastly catalogue of torture, human sacrifice, self-mutilation, stabbings and decapitations that punctuate the budding young playwright's first Roman drama. Indeed, the excess of horrors in 'Titus' can make other contemporary revenge plays look as tame as the Teletubbies -- one reason scholars have long disputed that the piece could be by Shakespeare at all, and why it is seldom staged.

Taymor has been known principally as a theater director, although she has made two films -- of her own production of Stravinsky's 'Oedipus Rex' and of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Her Broadway stage adaptation of Disney's 'The Lion King' has been a runaway success, and has just opened in Japan. She hasstaged Shakespeare's 'The Taming of the Shrew' and 'The Tempest,' and after her Off-Broadway production of 'Titus' she raised nearly $20 million for this U.S.-Italian joint production.

"I think 'Titus' is a very underrated play," Taymor said at her apartment in Rome after a series of grueling all-night shoots in freezing and often rainy weather. "It was one of his earliest, possibly his first play, and it contains the seeds of many later ones, like 'Lear,' 'Hamlet,' 'Othello' and 'Richard III.' In his day it was also one of his most popular. It's exciting, moving, very easy to follow and extremely dramatic. But it went out of fashion because it became thought of as being in bad taste. When I read it some years ago I couldn't believe that anything written so long ago, anything on the written page even, could shock me so much. But when I did it on stage it was very successful and audiences really took to it, and I began to think what a great movie it would make."

Taymor decided Rome was the best place to shoot, and was able to recruit two internationally renowned collaborators: the set designer Dante Ferretti, who has worked with Pasolini, Fellini and Zeffirelli, and Milena Canonero, Italy's leading costume designer.

"I love the stratification of eras in Rome, the layers upon layers of history built one upon the other," she said. In fact, her 'Titus' is not placed strictly in the Imperial Roman era but moves between epochs. So the backdrops include not only such classical sites as the Caracalla Baths, but also Mussolini's model district of Fascist architecture, the E.U.R., with its so-called Square Colosseum, "a monolithic, terrifying building," Taymor said.

Costumes, too, cross epochs -- Lange is styled as a Fascist-era vamp -- though there is a considerable quantity of re-created ancient Roman hardware, giving Cinecitta's prop departments more work of this kind than they have had since the epic blockbusters 'Spartacus' and 'Antony and Cleopatra.'

The action opens and closes in the Colosseum, inaugurated by Emperor Titus in A.D. 80, where scores of gladiators and 5,000 animals were killed in the first 100 days of games. Taymor decided on the opening shot before she knew it was Titus who had opened the arena, since "the Colosseum is recognized all over the world as the ultimate symbol of the theater of cruelty." But because the Colosseum no longer has its floor, the scenes set there were actually filmed in the almost perfectly preserved Roman amphitheater at Pola in Croatia, and the Zagreb Police Academy contributed to the army of extras.

While 'Titus' has often been seen as the bard's youthful excursion into sensationalist Grand Guignol, Taymor said she believed the play is a more serious study of what makes people violent and violence's consequences.

"I've dealt with violence often in the theater," she said, "and I think that if you totally stylize it, it becomes poetic, intellectual and almost beautiful, and this allows the audience to bear watching it. But you can also miss the point of the raw feeling of disgust you feel in your stomach when you witness real violence. So in this respect I am, more than ever, trying to find a balance.

"In the stage play," she continued, "Shakespeare doesn't show Lavinia's hands being cut off or her being raped. But he does show Titus's hand being severed. So there were times when Shakespeare decided that you should see something happen, but at other times what is in your imagination is even more extreme than anything you could ever show on stage, and I have fairly much followed Shakespeare in his directions for the play, while adding some surreal dream and nightmare sequences inspired by his imagery."

One of the major appeals of 'Titus,' Taymor added, was that there are so many good parts, rather than one or two dominant roles. Apart from the veterans Hopkins and Lange, she has brought in several up-and-coming hot properties from both sides of the Atlantic, including Alan Cummings, Colm Feore, James Frain, Jonathan Rhys-Myers and his brother Matthew Rhys.

Cast as Aaron the Moor, the arch manipulator and lover of Tamora, who bears his child, is the American Harry Lennix, who originally played the part Off-Broadway. "Aaron is the model of Iago in 'Othello,' of course," Taymor said, "but I find him much more interesting, because you never really understand why Iago is the way he is. But with Aaron, Shakespeare makes it clear that he has become an evil genius because of the way he has been treated. Titus starts out as the hero and Aaron the devil, but they begin to switch places and Titus begins to do inhuman things. And to watch Aaron change when his child is born and he becomes utterly absorbed by his own flesh and blood is fascinating."

The director added: "It's a humongous film and has a modest budget considering what we are trying to do. It's Shakespeare's most violent play, but it's also one of his funniest. He was very young when he wrote it and it has a brashness and an over-the-top view of humanity that became tempered in his later plays."


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016