Titus Andronicus – Shakespeare – A Tale of Two Movies

I have been working on an audition monologue from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and, at the very worthwhile suggestion of my audition coach Bobbie Steinbach I watched the Julie Taymor movie version and the BBC movie version. There’s are big differences, one being about $19.5 million dollars. Julie Taymor’s career was cresting after several magnificent successes (her Lion King is a pretty fantastic production), and apparently she didn’t have any trouble finding plenty of money to spend. The BBC didn’t have that budget but had considerable expectations to live up to themselves. They didn’t have to have an eye-popping spectacle Lion King-style, but they did have the responsibility to create a standard. They were the BBC. They were British. They had to do it right!

When it comes to “doing Shakespeare” I think Fantasia has it exactly right in his excellent book Instant Shakespeare. You have to embrace the text – understand it as completely as it is possible to do so. When questions arise as to what the text means, as they must, the decisions have to be at least plausible in light of the history of the play’s origins. Then, beyond that, the play has to let Shakespeare do the talking. A production needs to get out of the way and let Shakespeare roll.

By that standard, the BBC production is better than Taymor’s. I got the sense that Taymor’s costumes, sets, and music were at times meant to be a distraction from Shakespeare’s play – which was perhaps judged too difficult to understand or too boring on its own. It is not an easy play to present, true. Why Taymor chose this play, I don’t know. If she’d started with Hamlet or Macbeth or Lear she might not have felt the need to throw so much eye-candy at the audience. (Or not, we’ll never know. I doubt that we’ll be seeing any more Shakespeare movies from Taymor. The movie was a box-office flop, and her career needs to be rescued from big-budget flopping at this point.) It would be easy to paint the BBC’s production as cautious, but I don’t think it is. They used their limited budget effectively and creatively. Like Taymor’s play, the (earlier) BBC production leads in with shots of the young Lucius, and sets the play in an alternate universe – wisely avoiding trying to resurrect ancient Rome. The BBC brings it off convincingly and in a way that enhances the play, for the most part, and does not distract. We don’t get some of the very striking images that Taymor created – and they are not all bad by any means. I thought that her depiction of the “lopped and hewed” hands of the young Lavinia as twigs was a bit of genius. But I think she ruined that scene by excessive use of CGI that just got in the way. Overall, Taymor’s kaleidoscopic imagery seemed to be trying too hard and getting in the way too much. The world still awaits a big-budget movie version of Titus Andronicus that lets Shakespeare take the wheel and do the driving.

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