If you’ve heard the name Julie Taymor, chances are you know her as the director who refashioned Disney’s biggest-ever animated musical hit into a thoroughly theatrical event two years ago. For the massive Broadway version of The Lion King, the 47-year-old director conjured up a whole African savanna with a row of turf divots stuck atop the heads of hoop-skirted chorus boys. Using a simple piano-roll mechanism, she caused a wildebeest stampede. Her costumes and puppetry were fashioned into elephants, flying birds, jackals, and flatulent warthogs. In short, Taymor’s pageant of visual splendors has redefined stage spectacle.
But if a good chunk of the public now associate her with an upbeat, family-friendly fairy tale, they’re in for a jolt with her feature-film writing-directing-designing debut, Titus. An energetic, bracingly gory 2-hour-and-40-minute adaptation of an early Shakespeare tragedy (by most accounts he was around 30 when he wrote it), Taymor’s Titus — it sounded punchier than the full title, Titus Andronicus — depicts life in ancient Rome as one big circle of death. ”I love revenge stories,” says Taymor. ”They’re full of strong emotions.”
Especially as acted out by Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange — quite a casting coup, considering that Taymor is best known as a wizard with masks and puppets, not flesh-and-blood movie stars. Though he initially said he wasn’t interested in a Shakespeare movie, Hopkins was ultimately seduced by what Taymor calls his ”love of the grotesque,” and she sweet-talked him into starring as the title figure, a bewildered, King Lear-like army general descending into madness. (Much of it is brought on by the decadent new emperor, Saturninus, played by a Pee-wee Hermanesque Alan Cumming.) Lange, done up in a formfitting, nippled metallic breastplate and arm tattoos, is Tamora, a defeated matriarch who swears revenge after Titus sacrifices her eldest son in a gruesome ritual killing.
And that’s just the start of the bloodletting in this hard R- rated tale of woe. After the first half hour or so, you realize there’s probably a good reason this play has never been done as a major movie before, while the Bard’s confection A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows up in multiple versions: Titus is as gruesome as a live bullfight, filled with lopped-off hands, hacked-out tongues, rape, murder, and severed heads. The climax, which plays like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Will Shakespeare, finds Hopkins in full Hannibal Lecter mode as he finds a cannibalistic way to attain revenge on his foes. Where’s a rousing chorus of ”Hakuna Matata” when you need it?
”I really don’t think it’s that violent,” says Taymor in the bloody story’s defense. ”Not compared to Saving Private Ryan or Braveheart. And I don’t even feel it’s Shakespeare’s grisliest. Besides, this violence is not graphic. It’s psychological.” Okay, but some of it is also physical, since we do see throats slit, an arm stump punctured with a pen quill (so the implement can be used to scrawl a blood-red missive), and a shocking impalement, among other gasp inducers. Taymor brushes all that aside. ”Mostly you hear what’s going to happen,” she insists. ”I don’t show anybody’s head coming off. And nothing that we do show is gratuitous, or a glorification. There’s nothing here that’s a turn-on.”