Tarantino Before there was Tarantino


Title: Titus Andronicus

Rating: 3 Stars

This was put on by the Seattle Shakespeare Company.

Titus is kind of an embarrassment to most Shakespearean critics. It is clearly a play written for the masses. There is no subtlety. It is a revenge play in which the revenge is served hot, bloody, and insane.

I’ve always believed that this is the Shakespeare that should be introduced to high school students. Not the mamby-pamby prattlings of Romeo and Juliet (although a brave English teacher could titillate with interpretations of Mercutio’s lines). This play serves well the generation raised on Tarantino.

I’d seen this play once before. It was at some very low rent theater that looked like it had maybe 50 seats, which if I recollect, were of the fold-up chair variety. The centurions (the play takes place in ancient Rome) come marching in wearing spray-painted football helmets. I thought that I was about to witness a disaster, but it turned out extremely entertaining. It was a case where a creative director took the budget shortcomings and turned it into a strength.

I’d also seen the play as a movie directed by Julie Taymor and starring Anthony Hopkins. I came into it with high hopes, but alas, in my opinion they took the play too seriously and it seemed ponderous to me.

After all, let’s keep score of the death toll:

  • Titus kills one of the Goth queen’s sons in front of her
  • He kills one of his sons who disobeys him
  • The emperor’s brother is murdered by the two remaining Goth queen’s sons
  • Who in turn rapes Titus’ daughter and cuts off her arms and tongue
  • Titus chops off one of his hands to save two of his son’s lives
  • Titus then receives the heads of said son’s
  • Titus kills the two Goth queen’s sons who raped his daughter
  • He cooks them into a pie and serves them to the Goth queen
  • Titus kills his daughter to cover her shame
  • Titus kills the Goth queen
  • The emperor kills Titus
  • Titus’ son Lucius kills the emperor
  • Lucius is proclaimed the new emperor.

What the Fuckety Fuck?

You simply can’t take this kind of play seriously. As you can see, this truly is basically the plot of a Tarantino revenge movie. How has he not already made this movie?

Clearly, the Seattle Shakespeare Company has seen Tarantino movies. Tarantino was heavily influenced by the 70’s exploitation movies. Before the play starts, there is a movie screen on set which shows clips from fictional 70’s revenge movies featuring ancient myths (eg Medea). It sets the tone for the play to come.

Like Tarantino, the blood is copious. During the intermission, stage hands were hard at work cleaning off all of the blood that had been spelt. After the final scene, they probably need to bring in the equivalent of a Zamboni to vacuum it all up.

Saturnius, the Roman emperor, was properly supercilious. The previous version I’d seen had played him like Mick Jagger, which was even more amusing.

Titus basically chewed the scenes, which is kind of the point. There is no halfway to Titus, so every emotion had to be cranked up to eleven.

Tamora’s (the Goth queen) two sons were scarily effective. They gave off edgy, insane menace that actually was kind of freaky.

Lavinia, Titus’ daughter, ends up a broken, tragic figure. Her rape / mutilation scene, although not explicitly shown, was deeply disturbing and, quite frankly, upsetting. I wanted to hurry that scene over because it was so difficult to watch.

Tamora played it as a basic scheming sex pot using her hold over Saturnius to wreak her own revenge upon Titus.

Aaron the Moor is an interesting character. In many ways, he serves as the ur-Iago. Here in the play he is more one-dimensional than Iago, but like Iago, driven by jealousy and an basically corrupt nature, he is the true source of all evil that takes place during the play. As he says, he’s done one thousand foul things, his only regret is that he does not have time for ten thousand more.

I enjoyed the staging. The homage to Tarantino is, in hindsight, a somewhat obvious one to make, but still effective.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to change my mind on Titus. It used to be one of my favorites, but at the end of the day, it is pretty much completely lacking in subtlety. Having seen the Oregon Shakespeare Festival version of Hamlet, I now can see that taking the time to understand and appreciate the beauty and power of his later work is ultimately a much more rewarding experience.

This might have been my last Titus experience.


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