Shakespeare meets Hannibal Lecter

Julie Taymor is best known for putting The Lion King on stage. But, as she tells Fiona Morrow, her latest project - a film version of Titus Andronicus - couldn't be less cuddly
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The Independent Culture

''We could be in Brooklyn or Sarajevo." Julie Taymor's screenplay of Titus immediately asserts its contemporary relevance. For this director, Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare's most fully rounded works, and one that holds clear resonances for today's audience. Certainly, it isn't hard to see why this rapacious revenge tragedy should have been the most popular of the Bard's plays during his own lifetime, but these days it tends to be overlooked in favour of less bloodthirsty texts.

''We could be in Brooklyn or Sarajevo." Julie Taymor's screenplay of Titus immediately asserts its contemporary relevance. For this director, Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare's most fully rounded works, and one that holds clear resonances for today's audience. Certainly, it isn't hard to see why this rapacious revenge tragedy should have been the most popular of the Bard's plays during his own lifetime, but these days it tends to be overlooked in favour of less bloodthirsty texts.

Yet as a culture we are hooked on the idea of revenge. Our tabloids and television play out daily small-scale wars of attrition between neighbours, relatives and jealous spouses: from Jerry Springer's hyped-up circus screamshow to the News of the World's campaign on paedophiles, our belief in justice is sometimes horrifyingly close to that of our Elizabethan ancestors. And if Taymor does take her thesis to more serious territory in citing the internecine crisis in the Balkans, then that too is an argument with some credibility: the families in Titus endlessly avenge the evil acts perpetrated upon them with yet more evil acts.

Well known in the world of theatre, Taymor has won numerous awards and plaudits, and is here perhaps most readily associated with her stage version of Disney's The Lion King. A thinkaholic, Taymor's sphere of reference is vast, and her capacity to draw inference and allusion from all quarters impressive. Titus heaves with ambition and ideas, melding imagery and time periods with confidence and flair. And if the wild tragi-comedy doesn't quite hold together, the fault surely lies as much in the excesses of the plot as in its interpretation.

I am not the first interviewer of the day and Taymor, though claiming exhaustion from the previous evening's Tate Modern opening bash, is in freewheel frenzy. She speaks as fast as she thinks, driving one notion into another before something tangential yet pertinent strikes her, and then launches off again. She staged Titus before she filmed it, and every nuance is at her fingertips: every decision to cut text; every choice she made with the camera.

She always wanted to work on film, she tells me, but, immersed in theatre since childhood, she took a while to make it happen. After The Lion King she wanted a complete change: from visual to text-based; from family to adult. "I wanted to do something by a brilliant writer that would attract the greatest actors in the world." Was it a case of writing her own ticket? "Hardly," she says, pulling a face, "it was a really hard sell. Nobody wanted to do it."

Starring Anthony Hopkins in the lead, with Jessica Lange as Tamora, Titus begins in the present, with a child playing with his toy soldiers; the conflict escalates until he is transported to the Colosseum, where Roman soldiers, skin baked in clay, are returning triumphant from battle with the Goths, bringing the defeated Queen Tamora, her three sons and her Moorish slave Aaron (Harry Lennix, who played the same role in Taymor's stage production) as spoils of war.

It's a startling beginning: this is to be no straightforward performance of the text, but one in which time shifts and reality and fantasy collide. "You start with Titus," Taymor, explains, "a very just and honest general, but with limited vision. He believes in his authority and the old-world values of the paternal power and religion and order. And by the end he's baking people into pies. Now, how does that happen? Is it madness or clarity? And then in Tamora, you have an intelligent mother, who we first see appealing to Titus for pity, eventually becoming this wild Goddess of Vengeance, with kitchen knives coming out of her head, and big tits that have a plastic plume of smoke feeding the mouth of murder."

It's a step all right, and on the way we are treated to a plot that involves human sacrifice, torture, mutilation, rape and decapitation; not, one might think, ideal material for a director who says that she dislikes the violence in modern movies. "I only put violence on film when Shakespeare put it on stage," she counters. "But many things are either off-screen, or without a lot of blood. At the beginning, when Titus kills his son Mutius, it's expedient and largely psychological. But by the end, when Tamora's boys (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Matthew Rhys) are killed, I feel it's warranted that you see it. It's very quick; no music, dry, not a lot of drama. Kaput."

Though in its stylised imagery and bold camerawork, Titus could hardly be described as subtle, it is a measure of Taymor's intelligence and understanding of drama that the most horrible of the play's sequences - the rape and mutilation of Titus's daughter Lavinia - is also the film's most elegiac and restrained. Lavinia is discovered by her uncle Marcus (Colm Feore), tied to a stump in the middle of a swamp, twigs jutting from her wrists instead of hands, her tongue cut out to prevent her naming her attackers.

"The imagery comes from the text," Taymor explains. "But I had to find a way to stage it without destroying the realism. On stage I placed her on a pedestal because she is described as the "Jewel of Rome". She's only a goddamn girl, but the men have put her up there, and that's precisely why she's torn apart, because she's too good and too pure. So I put her on a stump in a swamp, and there's the sexuality of the destroyed woman, all liquid and muddied and stained."

Asked about the other films of Shakespeare's plays, Taymor cites the theatricality of Orson Welles's Othello as an influence, but also recognises the freedom that came with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet. That said, she is not without criticism of the latter: "I'm not sure all the lines were easily understood, and I've seen too many modern films of Shakespeare that seem terrified of the language."

To avoid any such problems on Titus, there was a three week rehearsal period in Rome: "We worked on scenes and on text, to make the actors own it. I have this either naive, or highly sophisticated belief, that you can do very rich, complex work for audiences who might only get a portion of it if you make it entertaining and the story is clear."

She was careful not to over-rehearse, allowing the locations themselves to add an extra frisson to the performances; this effect, Taymor says, was most apparent when a real baby was introduced on set.

In the plot, Tamora gives birth to Aaron's child, disowning the baby because of its colour; Aaron saves his son from death, before both are captured by Titus's eldest, Lucius (Angus Macfadyen).

"Harry's performance is lightening rods away from what he did on stage," Taymor tells me. "The reality of a real baby and a real environment brought a whole other level of terror and truth." She leans forward conspiratorially. "Imagine those scenes, not with a real baby but a plastic doll. In rehearsals Angus said to me, 'I'm going to hold the baby upside down.' I thought, well you can do that with a doll, but let's just see what happens when he gets on location. And as soon as he held it... the fragility of that child changed everything."

Taymor made different choices herself, most notably changing the ending: "On stage you heard the baby's cries turn to birds, then to bells. It was dark, abstract. But today's film audience needs to connect, and I felt that in such an unsentimental and cruel play, I should give the possibility of redemption."

She has no truck, however, with the idea that Titus may still be a little over-the-top for contemporary tastes. "There's a picture in, I think, this month's Vanity Fair, of a young girl in Rwanda with her hands chopped off. Don't tell me this isn't reality," she exclaims. "It is. But Shakespeare pushes it into such a high-voltage intensity that it feels beyond the pale. Is that ridiculous?" Taymor answers her own question emphatically: "No, not at all."

'Titus' will be shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival on 26 Aug. It is released 1 Sept

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