The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.040 Monday, 20 January 2014
Date: January 16, 2014 at 10:03:27 AM EST
Subject: Ron Rosenbaum Interviews Julie Taymor
[Editor’s Note: The following excerpt, from the article “Dreaming of Shakespeare by Ron Rosenbaum, appeared in the December 2013 Smithsonian Magazine (pages 27-32, 83-84) and on smithsonian.com:
Why Shakespeare is Julie Taymor’s Superhero
For the renowned director of the screen and stage, the Bard is a fantasy and a nightmare
By Ron Rosenbaum
For such a physically slight, ballerina-like figure, Julie Taymor is metaphysically fierce. The fact that she arrives at our rendezvous in a New York bistro buzzing with adrenaline, having just come from the first rehearsal of her new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, only intensifies the impression. She’s on a Shakespeare high, and her enthusiasm for the relevance of Shakespeare is contagious.
Most of the world knows Julie Taymor as the director of The Lion King, the epic, viral Broadway smash that has circled the globe. It’s become a modern myth, virtually Homeric. A wild spectacle that, as she puts it, “got to the DNA” of a vast audience and wrapped their double helixes around her finger.
But there’s another Julie Taymor, lesser known and more surprising: the one who took one of Shakespeare’s most obscure, most brutal, haunting and mystifying tragedies—Titus Andronicus—and turned it into one of the greatest Shakespearean films ever. She made Titus in 1999 on a big budget with Anthony Hopkins playing the tragic title character and Jessica Lange playing Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Taymor took what had seemed to me a play that was a bit stilted on the page and blew it up into a magnificent Fellini/Scorsese fusion of raw bloody Shakespearean fury.
I’m not exaggerating: I watched it again recently at a screening at the Museum of Modern Art and felt like I had been given a metaphysical punch to the gut. I say this as someone who has watched virtually every major Shakespearean film in the course of writing a book on Shakespearean scholars and directors. Titus creates an intensity so breathtaking it makes you forget the rest of the world.
It made me rethink human nature, made me rethink Shakespeare’s nature. How could he have harbored such a horrific and merciless vision so early (he wrote Titus Andronicus when he was not yet 30, at least six years before Hamlet).
It also made me rethink Julie Taymor’s nature. How could the person who created The Lion King, with the theme of “The Circle of Life,” also create a Titus, which might well be called “The Circle of Death”? My mission, I decide even before meeting her, is to get people to see Titus and recognize just how utterly contemporary and relevant it is to the war-torn, terror-ridden world we live in today.
“It was massive!” I say to her as we sit down.
“It was massive!” she agrees. “My first feature. And it was so exciting.”
She takes a sip of prosecco. She reminds me of that line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” (Well, she’s not that little, but she radiates furious, focused energy.) The wild stories she tells in the big book about her work, aptly titled Playing With Fire, testify to that ferocity: about her time on a fellowship in Indonesia, putting together a theater troupe in the wild outback of Bali, daring the fires of live volcanoes, developing the unique Javanese and Balinese-influenced huge-mask-and-giant-puppet-based theater art that eventually made The Lion King such a spectacle.
I asked her what it’s like to direct Shakespeare, “It seems like the greatest thing for a human being—” I started to say.
[ . . . ]
“The audience is on three sides and it’s basically a magic black box, like a Japanese lacquered black box, that has holes and windows and traps. But we’re using the idea there’s a prologue which is a bed.”
A bed as a prologue?
“This character [who turns out to be Puck, the chief instigator of mischief among the lovers in the play] is sleeping in a bed and from out of the earth trees push the mattress up and it floats, and then the bedsheets get attached and the mechanicals—the real mechanicals, my workmen—pull out the sheet and it becomes a canopy which becomes the sky. What I’m trying to do is what I think the play does so brilliantly—it goes from the poetic to the mundane, from the magical to the banal, kind of gossamer and intangible to the concrete and, you know, gaudy and real.”
She speaks almost as if possessed.
[ . . . ]
“My favorite play is Titus and it will always be Titus,” she says. “I think it contains the truth of human nature. Especially about evil, about violence, about blood. It investigates every aspect of violence that exists. It is the most terrifying play or movie that exists.”
When I ask why, she gives a terrifying answer:
“Because what Shakespeare’s saying is that anybody can turn into a monster. That is why I think Titus is way beyond Hamlet.”