At a time when so many people complain about our increasingly crude and tabloidish culture, maybe it’s not surprising that Shakespeare’s most notoriously grisly play, Titus Andronicus, is enjoying a bit of a comeback. It puts things in perspective, actually. Forget Eminem, There’s Something About Mary, or the Scream films; here’s the Bard himself, 400 years ago, baking human pies and writing the incomparable stage direction “Enter Messenger with two heads and a hand.” (For laugh value, it’s second only to “Exit, pursued by a bear” in A Winter’s Tale.)
Why are gifted directors — from Peter Brook in his 1955 Stratford production, to Julie Taymor in her 1999 version, to Providence’s Richard Griffin in his 2000 $16,000 digital-video adaptation — drawn to such disreputable, lowly material? Well, partly because it’s fun. And it’s not all that lowly: you can see the seeds of Shakespeare’s later tragedies in this youthful work. Finally, unlike standards like Hamlet, Othello, or King Lear, it hasn’t been done to death. A director can come to it with fresh eyes, a spirit of play. Neither intimidating nor stodgy, Titus Andronicus may be the richest found object among Shakespeare’s lesser-performed works.
Technically, and in many other ways, Griffin’s film is superb — I’d put it up against just about anything I’ve seen in a multiplex this year. Where Julie Taymor went for a kind of graphic-design fantasia, Griffin takes the Kubrick route, with plain, elegant compositions sliding out one by one. He gives us an almost corporate vision of evil, with some scenes unfolding among the Macintosh clutter of a modern office space (the setting is like a hybrid of now and ancient Rome). Since this film was already in the can (or, more accurately, the hard drive) when Mary Harron’s American Psycho and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet came out earlier this year, Griffin may have caught something in the air — the same something that informed those other two films, an aesthetic in which bright blood and white collars mingle like a dark potion.
It helps, too, that Griffin has a vigorous cast, many of whom work wonders, all of whom (like Griffin and his crew) worked unpaid. British actor Nigel Gore, as Shakespeare’s first poster boy for circumstantial insanity, brings the weight of morality as well as madness to Titus. He’s matched step for step by Zoya Pierson as the devious Tamora, driven to revenge by her enslavement at the hands of Titus; Pierson plays this Queen of the Goths as if taking her cue from our modern goths (and Griffin, in one of his best inspirations, dresses the Goths accordingly, complete with black lipstick). I also enjoyed Kevin Butler’s robust Aaron, the Moor in cahoots with Tamora; Christopher Pierson’s perpetually offended Saturninus; Molly Lloyd’s innocent Lavinia, for whom ugly things are in store; and John Capalbo’s complexly drawn Lucius, who more or less emerges as the play’s hero by default.
Griffin has used the architecture and nature of Providence in a way that brings Shakespeare into our world and also pushes us into Shakespeare’s rather harsh moral world. It wasn’t long before I forgot the movie was shot in Providence; Griffin pulls us into the story, and even when he goes in for a bit of stylized violence (as in the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, in a scene that reminded me of the woodsy horrors in Last House on the Left while making The Blair Witch Project look pretty anemic), it packs all the more punch for coming in the midst of a restrained style. Yet this doesn’t look or feel like a televised BBC adaptation, either; regardless of its digital-video format, this is as much a film as Julie Taymor’s version. Like other interpreters of Shakespeare’s least respected work, Griffin sees the gold in what many had considered the dross of the play, and he lets us see it, too.