With her universally admired stage adaptation of The Lion King, director Julie Taymor converted a barrel-scraping enterprise—Broadway renditions of Disney animated musicals—into a synthesis of conceptual and popular art. Taymor attempts a similar feat in reviving Titus Andronicus (shortened here to the punchier Titus), an early and formative Shakespeare work that was a hit with audiences in its day, but is generally considered the grisliest (if not the worst) entry in the Bard's canon. Featuring enough dismembered parts to construct several new bodies, Titus strikes a near-impossible balance between magnificently cracked high camp and a more serious statement about corruption and the cycle of violence. It's heavy going on both counts, but Taymor's audacity is something to behold, even if the sum of her conceits borders on oppressive. Freely meshing three different time periods—Rome in 400 A.D., the fascist 1930s, and the present—into one, Titus gets off to an inauspicious start when a clown bursts through a wall, seizes a violent young boy playing with action figures in a modern kitchen, and drags him into the world of the play. (Imagine an old Kool-Aid commercial directed by Alan Parker.) From there, Taymor unfolds a complicated double-revenge plot centering on Titus (Anthony Hopkins), a great Roman general who returns victorious from a bloody war with the northern Goths and chooses the eldest son of Tamora (Jessica Lange), their queen, for ritual human sacrifice. But the tables turn when the evil new emperor, Saturninus (Alan Cumming), chooses Lange for his wife and her two sons, in conjunction with a scheming Moor (Harry J. Lennix), exact revenge by brutally raping and mutilating Hopkins' chaste daughter. More horrific murders and decapitations follow, but the resilient general concocts his own recipe for humble pie. Bold and decadent, Titus is built on jarring and darkly comic juxtapositions, colliding the past with the present, garishness with serene poetry, and wild excess with chilly aestheticism, like an arranged marriage between the shamelessly lusty Ken Russell and the anti-sensual Peter Greenaway. If Taymor's intent was to restore the play's flagging reputation, she's far too distracted by the tricked-up style to do so. But her forceful adaptation builds to a glorious payoff and Cumming's flamboyant performance alone—he's a sort of fascist Pee-Wee Herman—seems enough to ensure Titus lasting cult status.
More from The A.V. Club