Give Richard Griffin an “A” for audacity: on a budget of $12,000, he created a nearly three-hour Rhode Island-based DV production of William Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” If Griffin’s film is not entirely successful, then the blame should be placed on the Bard and not the ambitious auteur.
Shakespeare was not a perfect playwright and his canon has more than a few wobbly works. “Titus Andronicus” is generally considered his worst play: a convoluted tale of revenge and jealousy in ancient Rome where sudden explosions of miserable gore punctuate long streams of ennui. Julie Taymor, in her 1999 film adaptation “Titus,” hoped to compensate for the poverty of the text with an extravagant production that vainly tried to shift the focus away from the awful story (not unlike Kenneth Branagh’s recent failed attempt to camouflage the insignificance of “Love Labour’s Lost” by inserting anachronistic musical numbers to fluff up a weak comedy.) Griffin, with a genius for guerrilla cinema that rivals Orson Welles’ amazing production history on “Othello,” works within the limitations of his budget and his literary source by updating the tale to contemporary American society. It is a strikingly brilliant touch, with the councils of ancient Rome replaced by upholstered modern boardrooms and the proverbial corridors of power transplanted into the staircases and hallways of today’s buttonholing lobbyists. The exquisitely tailored and groomed cast is dressed and coifed to kill, reminding us that the thirst for power and its corrupting influence on the judgment process has not changed whether the uniform of the day is a toga or a double-breasted Armani.
“Titus Andronicus” is also rich in visual wit which compliments the absurdities of today’s tastes. The vanquished Goths of Shakespeare’s play are presented in the make-up and clothing of today’s Goth music subculture, and the Emperor’s coronation is offered as a “Rome TV” live broadcast. The bloody execution of the son of the Goth Queen Tamora is shot in a home video format, with the executioner babbling idiotically into the shaky camera on the pleasure he took in mutilating his helpless captor. Griffin has brought, for the most part, an excellent cast of Rhode Island-based actors to his work. Nigel Gore offers the perfect blend of noble weariness as Titus, while the strikingly beautiful Zoya Pierson reigns as the treacherous Tamora. The actors who play Titus’ vicious sons are all strikingly handsome and curiously touched with weak voices, yet their lack of vocal majesty strangely empowers the venality and pettiness of their lines. The one mistake in the casting is bearded and chubby Christopher Pierson as the Emperor Saturninus, who seems to be channeling Nathan Lane rather than providing the right touch of imperial arrogance.
But for all of the fine acting and imaginative production values, Griffin cannot build a mansion on a toolshed’s foundation. The thudding storyline and its unlikely twists and turns repeatedly get in the way and bog down the wit and flair which the film tries very hard to maintain. It takes a great deal of patience to work through Shakespeare’s weak drama and, inevitably, the deficit of substance overpowers the surplus of style. “Titus Andronicus” is a fascinating experiment which, not unlike most fascinating experiments, never achieves 100% success. Yet at a time when so much indie cinema is lacking in originality and daring, Griffin and his cast and crew deserve an ovation for trying something very, very different.