BBC Complete Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus

It’s inevitable for a writer as fascinating and diverse as Shakespeare to have a couple of real oddities in their oeuvre, and there probably isn’t any anomaly as bizarre as Titus Andronicus. It’s one of the few of Bill’s plays to receive consistently hostile criticism. Harold Bloom said it couldn’t be taken seriously, and the best imaginable production would be directed by Mel Brooks. T.S. Eliot claimed it was the worst play ever written, suggesting that, perhaps, it was a parody of the revenge tragedies of Christopher Marlowe (Shakespeare’s contemporary). Why such hate? Well, Titus is certainly Shakespeare’s most violently gruesome play. Critic S. Clarke Hulse even calculated the atrocities, coming to this statistic: “14 killings, 6 severed members, 1 rape, 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity, and 1 of cannibalism—-an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines.”

The play chronicles the reciprocations of revenge after Roman conqueror Titus (Trevor Peacock) returns home from the successful wars with the Goths with their queen, Tamora (Eileen Atkins) and her sons in tow. After sacrificing her eldest, even after her tearful pleading, Titus ultimately nominates Saturninus (Brian Protheroe) to be the next emperor. The arrogant Saturninus offers to marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Anna Calder-Marshall), but when Bassianus claims Lavinia for his own since they were betrothed (which act sets Titus against his sons, who are more apt to defend Lavinia), Saturninus marries Tamora. Tamora then contracts her sons, Chiron (Michael Crompton), Demetrius (Neil McCaul), as well as her insidious, warrior moor, Aaron (Hugh Quarshie) to rape Lavinia. They do so, as well as cut off her hands and tongue, which sends Titus into a madness, planning his revenge on those responsible.

”Why dost thou laugh? it fits not with this hour.” – Marcus Andronicus

When Bloom suggested Mel Brooks for a director of Titus, I can’t help but feel he was on to something. It’s almost impossible to appreciate Titus Andronicus as a legitimate revenge tragedy. It’s so over the top, not just in its violence, but in its ridiculously heightened language that one can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. The characters are likewise so alien and unsympathetic it’s impossible to get involved in their tragedy. So how does one approach the play? I almost feel that the play is brilliant in its ability to dodge easy categorization or one-dimensional perspective. The play CAN work as a classic revenge tragedy, but it works just as well as a metafictional commentary on revenge tragedies, or as a commentary on the absurd nature of revenge in itself.

In that sense, I feel that a production that only plays it straight is doomed from the outset, and the biggest problem behind this production is precisely that it does play it so straight and one-dimensional. Comparisons would be inevitable between this production and Julie Taymor’s superb 1999 adaptation, Titus, with Anthony Hopkins in the lead role. The biggest difference between the two productions (besides Taymor’s bigger budget and cinematic approach) is that Taymor truly got and capitalized on the absurd elements in the play, turning it into a phantasmagoric mish-mash of eras, costumes, and settings. She also played up the lunacies, perfectly echoing the ambiguous tone of the play that never allows us to be sure if it’s knowingly or unknowingly pushing things way too far.

Jane Howell, who directed the first historical tetralogy for the BBC Complete Shakespeare, returns here with Trevor Peacock who lent his powerful performance and presence to I Henry VI as Talbot and II Henry VI as Jack Cade. Like in those roles, he has a forcefulness to his being that fits the character quite well, but he can’t help but pale in comparison to Anthony Hopkins, who did the near impossible by lending Titus’ character a vulnerable humanism while still playing up his stupidities. Most of the cast is similar in that they’re solid but are no match for their counterparts in Taymor’s version. That said, Hugh Quarshie is a convincing Aaron, who has often been cited as the most interesting role in the play, and one of Shakespeare’s best villains.

The sets are large, darkly lit hulks of what is (or just looks like) grey stones of a castle. Obviously, the BBC couldn’t even begin to match the visionary art design of Dante Ferretti, but, it’s nice if taken in the context of the series. The problem is that a play as grandly conceived (whether parodiable or not) needs big, wide-open spaces rather than such intimate settings, and the BBC’s vision inevitable brings us too close a play that’s best viewed at about 100-feet back. Of course, it’s difficult to criticize a production for simply not having the means to do that. The section of the play set in the woods likely suffers the most, as the artifice is readily apparent. Though in a play as artificial as Titus one could argue it rather matches the tone.

It doesn’t seem fair to criticize this BBC production for being inferior to Taymor’s cinematic production, but it’s hard to justify why we need this one when we’ve got Taymor. I guess the BBC’s are praised for their “faithfulness” to the text, but, in this sense, it seems that their penchant for remaining faithful to the text has handcuffed them from being faithful to the the spirit of Shakespeare, which is something Taymor indelibly brought out. Ultimately, Titus Andronicus is not an easy play to produce because it’s almost impossible to play it straight, but it’s hard to balance it so that it doesn’t become too obvious as a parody. In a way, it makes a superb companion piece to Chan Wook-Park’s Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) because they, too, are films that walk that tricky line between genuine revenge tragedies, and an absurd parody of such things. But if you need to do the comparison, it would be advised to check out Taymor’s film rather than this BBC version.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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