Don't put your slaughter on the stage

Appalled by its gory atrocities, genteel critics have been trying to detach <i>Titus Andronicus </i>from the Shakespeare canon for centuries. They're wrong, says Boyd Tonkin
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The Independent Culture

In 1995, Antony Sher led a group of actors from the National Theatre to newly-democratic South Africa. To widespread dismay, they chose to stage Titus Andronicus at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. Among the audience for Shakespeare's early tragedy of grotesquerie and Grand Guignol was Albie Sachs, the human-rights lawyer horrifically injured in a car-bomb attack by agents of the apartheid regime. "It's not," he reflected after the show (which begins with the ritual murder of an enemy child and climaxes in a cannibal banquet), "a play for amputees."

In 1995, Antony Sher led a group of actors from the National Theatre to newly-democratic South Africa. To widespread dismay, they chose to stage Titus Andronicus at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. Among the audience for Shakespeare's early tragedy of grotesquerie and Grand Guignol was Albie Sachs, the human-rights lawyer horrifically injured in a car-bomb attack by agents of the apartheid regime. "It's not," he reflected after the show (which begins with the ritual murder of an enemy child and climaxes in a cannibal banquet), "a play for amputees."

Or for anybody else much, if a 400-year tradition of vilification and nervous giggling is any guide. Fervent efforts by genteel critics and editors to detach Titus from the Shakespeare canon began in the Restoration era and have never really ceased. Either the great-hearted Bard never wrote this bloody semi-farce, said right-minded opinion, or else he had no business doing so. Samuel Johnson opined that "the barbarity of the spectacles can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience". TS Eliot (never a huge Shakespeare fan anyway), pronounced it "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written". The Restoration dealt with its naked savagery - and indecorous jokes - in the way it knew best. The script-doctor called, and Edward Ravenscroft rewrote this scandalous shocker as an uplifting tragedy.

And yet... Titus, an amalgam of bleeding chunks of Roman lore with no specific source, has always refused to slink away and die. Originally performed in January 1594, it became the first Shakespeare text to appear in print. It's the only one of his works for which an authentic contemporary illustration survives. By the early 17th century, a travelling English troupe had even played it in Germany. The Bard's shameful little secret had, in fact, started life as one of his biggest hits.

The plot of escalating revenges - an X-rated embodiment of Gandhi's axiom "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" - held a horrid fascination. It offered not merely demented acts of butchery as the grizzled Roman general Titus and Tamora, Queen of the Goths, trade tit-for-tat atrocities. Even more outrageous, the close proximity of horror and laughter broke every rule in the aesthetic book. Titus boldly takes extreme feelings and replants them in all the wrong places. To anyone raised on the laws of theatrical decorum, there could scarcely be a more shocking line than the hero's response when his two sons, sent to Tamara as hostages, come back as severed heads: "Ha, ha, ha!"

Hence the centuries of appalled re-edits and critical opprobrium. Then, in a post-war Europe where where history had rendered no sort of carnage unthinkable, the play slowly crept back into the repertoire. Peter Brook's stylised production at Stratford in 1955 starred Laurence Olivier as the grief-maddened soldier and Vivien Leigh as his raped and mutilated daughter Lavinia. It helped enlist Titus as an honoured precursor of the Theatre of Cruelty. With a prominent role in Jan Kott's absurdist manifesto Shakespeare our Contemporary, and a regular place on the avant-garde European stage, Titus edged back from the fringes of the canon.

In 1987, Deborah Warner (with Brian Cox as Titus) turned a searchlight of feminist analysis on to a text that places a rape at its heart. And this week, as Julie Taymor's film opens in Britain, Titus will touch the commercial heart of our culture as never before. A star-encrusted movie from a Disney company, directed by the prize-festooned creator of The Lion King, it gives a gory showcase to those Hollywood guarantors of quality cinema: Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange.

Taylor's period-hopping decor, and mélange of naturalistic passion with fantasy violence, stands firmly in a post-Peter Brook line of modern productions. It even harks back to a much older source in the sympathetic depiction of Aaron the Moor: the scheming black outsider who fathers a child with Tamora, and supplies what you might call the technical know-how for her most sadistic stratagems.

Taymor's production notes suggest that Aaron should be played as an embittered "victim of racism". That conclusion overrides the melodramatic practice of the 1590s in favour of the Method, but still has a respectable lineage. In Ravenscroft's Restoration version, Aaron became the play's persecuted hero, far more sinned against than sinning. In the 19th century, the celebrated black actor Ira Aldridge managed the same shift, performing Aaron as a magnanimous proto-Othello rather than a stock demon. True, Shakespeare's Aaron does show some heart-tugging flashes of humanity once his son is born. All the same, he dies declaiming "If one good deed in all my life I did/ I do repent it from my very soul." That Taymor should revert to the Ravenscoft-Aldridge stance shows that Shakespeare in the raw can still shock us as quite much as it did those ancestors whose squeamishness we now deride.

As with Aaron, so with Shylock: the young Shakespeare picked up every stage stereotype he could lay his hands on. Speech by speech, play by play, he then discovered how to make them live, think and feel far beyond the roles allotted by convention. And the most scandalous element of Titus lies not in carnage or comedy, but in the way this hilarious bloodbath contains so much of its creator's career in embryo. Jonathan Bate brilliantly proves as much in his Arden edition, with its compelling arguments for Titus as "an important play and a living one".

Aaron, of course, anticipates both Iago and Othello - although the older, wiser writer would make his devil white. He is also the wisecracking forerunner of every sly, disgruntled plotter from Richard III to Edmund. Titus's response to the ravaged Lavinia pre-echoes Lear with Cordelia; while witty, sexy, armour-plated Tamora looks forward to both Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. At once barbarian and decadent, the play's vision of Rome recurs more than a decade on in Coriolanus. And so on... Titus so alarms the purists not because it comes from far out on the Shakespearean margins, but for exactly the opposite reason: its core motifs fertilised the growth of Shakespeare's imagination.

You might say that the genetic blueprint of his major tragedies lies here amid what Julie Taymor calls the "penny arcade nightmares" of slaughter and dismemberment, far more than in the lyricism of Romeo and Juliet. Try to envisage Joseph Fiennes penning Titus as he plans to bed Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love (the dates make this just as plausible). You'll soon grasp how much the actual plays can still offend against our cosy image of a laddish but well-adjusted genius. A movie about the artist who made his tormented hero cry "Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust... And make two pasties of your shameful heads" (and then dramatised this emetic recipe) would have won not a fistful of Oscars but a volley of political abuse. Nice Shakespeare may have tickled the Academy's palate. But it was Nasty Shakespeare who, in Titus Andronicus, carved a scarlet template for his mature masterpieces. This play stands at the dead centre of his work.

'Titus' (18) goes on general release tomorrow

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