In a little-seen British comedy, Michael Winner's film of Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval (1988), Anthony Hopkins has a plumb role as the sweaty, earnest, nerdy director of a modest theatre troupe. The movie's best moment comes when Hopkins grips Jeremy Irons' arm as he attempts to justify the choice of an ancient play by John Gay: "It's just as relevant now as it was in 1724!"
Many who today stage Shakespeare, in theatre or on film, are also likewise gripped by the anxiety of being relevant. Unable to let the text speak for itself – or to let contemporary audiences pick up the timely resonances – they force the play into modern costumes, settings and idioms.
To an extent, this is fair enough. There is no correct way to stage or interpret Shakespeare and, as Orson Welles once remarked: "Every single way of playing Shakespeare – as long as the way is effective – is right". Directors should be allowed to experiment with bringing the texts alive in any form imaginable. All the same, there is a preciousness about much modernised Shakespeare – as if producers are caught between ingrained respect for a canonised classic and severe doubt as to whether the material is actually relevant to anyone at all anymore.
Perhaps it is the presence of Hopkins, once again a grandly eloquent, raging bull, that makes me ponder such unkind thoughts in the face of Julie Taymor's Titus. This movie certainly has the courage of its modernising convictions: a rendering of Titus Andronicus that, within its first minutes, crashes from a vaguely contemporary time-frame into a hyperreal melange of eras and civilisations.
Cinematic inspirations abound. There are microphones, dance halls, and showbiz spectaculars as in the Ian McKellen version of Richard III (1995). Edits relocate the action, mid-scene, from one stark setting to another as in Raúl Ruiz's take on Richard III (1984). A queer touch recalls Derek Jarman's revision of Marlowe's Edward II (1991), and (thanks to the casting of elfin Jonathan Rhys Meyers) Todd Haynes' glam tribute Velvet Goldmine (1998). Phantasmagoric and Gothic horror elements derive equally from Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Greenaway's Jacobean-style The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989).
Most modernisations of classics inevitably trade on a heavy-handed reference to some major, historic trauma of the 20th century. McKellen's Richard evoked Hitler; Coppola's blood imagery gestured towards the AIDS epidemic; Jarman targeted Thatcherism. Taymor goes for the full monty, mixing allusions to our popular culture of "tabloid sex scandals, teenage gang rape, high school gun sprees and ... a celebrity murder trial" with the global terrors of "racism, ethnic cleansing and villainy".
Pretensions to super-significance aside, is it a good film? Hopkins as Titus, Jessica Lange as Tamora and Harry Lennix as Aaron give enormous power and intensity to their roles – although Taymor lacks Kenneth Branagh's facility at making Shakespearean language comprehensible and expressive, rather than a garbled gush. Elliot Goldenthal's score is bold. The movie's elaborate visual conceits intermittently find a poetic core in the motif of inanimate objects becoming animate – and vice versa.
Taymor, likewise, is engaged in her own attempt at bringing a congealed monument to life. Even if she tries a little too hard and transforms a little too much, there is no doubting the vigour and clarity of her approach. Titus will be the benchmark that Shakespearean screen adaptions are judged by in the near future – at least, until the next ambitious modernisation comes along.
MORE Taymor: Frida
© Adrian Martin September 2000