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Titus Andronicus On Screen

Adaptations of Shakespeare's blood-drenched revenge tragedy

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Shakespeare's most controversial play, Titus Andronicus is so graphically (and sexually) violent that many distinguished scholars have gone to considerable lengths to demonstrate that it was not by Shakespeare at all, or was a collaboration with a much lesser talent (the minor dramatist George Peele's name is often invoked) or, if it was entirely Shakespeare's work, it was written so early in his career that it can be dismissed as juvenilia. However, its critical reputation has been revised upwards over the last few decades, to the extent that it is now widely (if far from universally) accepted as Shakespeare's first major tragedy, a piece of much greater subtlety and erudition than its parade of blood-drenched atrocities might suggest.

Nonetheless, it remains a deeply problematic piece, and as a result it is comparatively rarely performed. The outstanding postwar productions have been by Peter Brook (Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1955, with Laurence Olivier) and Deborah Warner (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1987, with Brian Cox) and it has also inspired two memorable filmed versions, by Jane Howell for the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle in 1985, and Julie Taymor's 1999 feature film Titus. It is interesting to note that three out of the four directors in this pantheon have been women, given the play's graphic depiction (both visually and verbally) of violence against the female body.

Howell's production was broadcast on 27 April 1995, the final entry in the 37-play BBC project and one of the most acclaimed. Dispensing with many of the directorial and conceptual flourishes that had made her earlier work for the series (The Winter's Tale, the Henry VI/Richard III cycle) so compelling, here she prefers a sober and intelligent reading that maintained a careful balance between humour and horror. Trevor Peacock gives a suitably dour and gravelly rendition of the title role, with a supporting cast that included Eileen Atkins (Tamora), Anna Calder-Marshall (Lavinia), Brian Protheroe (Saturninus), Edward Hardwicke (Marcus) and a chortling Hugh Quarshie (Aaron). The same evening, an accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was presented, appropriately enough, by the psychologist Anthony Clare.

Since a planned 1969 feature film to be directed by Robert Hartford-Davis with Christopher Lee and Lesley-Ann Down (presumably as Titus and Lavinia), was never made, the only big-screen adaptation is Julie Taymor's 1999 Titus. Essentially a US/Italian co-production, it nonetheless had a strong British presence in the cast, including Anthony Hopkins stern and (fatally) unyielding in the title role, Alan Cumming as a memorably camp Saturninus, Laura Fraser as Lavinia, Geraldine McEwan as the nurse and Matthew Rhys and the Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers making up a Celtic pairing as the giggling, immature Demetrius and Chiron, who pass the time after raping and mutilating Lavinia with a variety of shoot-em-up video games. As that image suggests, this is far from a conventional reading, with Taymor simultaneously fusing ancient Rome, Mussolini's Italy and the present day in a wildly inventive visual and conceptual stew that repelled as many as it fascinated (it's far more Ken Russell than Kenneth Branagh) - though it's certainly one of the most provocative and imaginative big-screen Shakespeare films of recent years. Interestingly, Taymor also adopts the device of showing the action as if through young Lucius' eyes, a key plank of Howell's adaptation.

The other big-screen reference to Titus Andronicus comes, predictably enough, in the horror-comedy Theatre of Blood (d. Douglas Hickox), whose most famous set piece involves Vincent Price's vengeful actor Edward Lionheart feeding theatre critic Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley) a meal made up of his freshly-slaughtered poodles before killing him. Considering what else Lionheart could have drawn from the play, it is tempting to think that Merridew got off lightly.


Titus, US/Italy, d. Julie Taymor, 1999

BBC2, tx. 27/4/1985, d. Jane Howell

Other References
Theatre of Blood, d. Douglas Hickox, 1973
Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 27/4/1985, with Anthony Clare

Michael Brooke

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