William Shakespeare was in his late 20s — not yet the Bard — when he wrote Titus Andronicus. And, as in the early works of many artists, the play draws on a student’s knowledge (in this case, of the Roman dramatist Seneca’s literary structure) and a punk’s love of gore to recount the tragedy of a great military man unprepared for the post-battle miseries that destroy his family. The story is pulped with murder, rape, and torture, all of which director Julie Taymor tears into with the blood gusto of Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino in Titus.
Indeed, Taymor’s adaptation (first staged Off Broadway in 1994) is so strenuously idiosyncratic, so full of big, genre-scrambling concepts, that the creator of Broadway’s The Lion King takes a screenplay credit superseding that of Shakespeare. Yet for all the panoply, for all the imposing swirl of imagery Taymor loves — soldiers marching like toy monsters, Titus dressed like Eisenhower — Titus Andronicus the play remains a green work more interesting for the brilliance it prefigures (here are early models for King Lear, Iago, and Lady Macbeth) than for the fevered story it tells. And Titus remains a sampling of stagy scenes barreling to a gruesome climax, parts greater than the sum of the whole.
And this despite — or maybe because of — performances large enough to project in the Roman Colosseum. Among them, Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Titus draws on the twin undercurrents of pride and bewilderment that nourish the actor’s best character work; as the captive Goth Queen Tamora, Jessica Lange amps up her specialty, portraying extreme women damaged by life; and Broadway’s Cabaret star Alan Cumming vamps and camps as the preening emperor Saturninus. In the most disconcerting and enigmatic role, that of the villainous Moor Aaron, Harry Lennix (Get on the Bus) burns with evil. It’s a rage that suits a proscenium, but nearly chokes a screen with smoke. C+