TALKING TITUS with John Fagan of The Warehouse Theatre’s Upstate Shakespeare Festival production, and Julie Taymor, “The Lion King” director and auteur of the 1999 film version of “Titus.”
INTERVIEWED BY SANDY STAGGS
John Fagan, longtime esteemed director of the Upstate Shakespeare Festival, reveals his fascinating vision of “Titus Andronicus” to Carolina Curtain Call in Greer July 2017.
And from the Carolina Curtain Call archives is a very special treat! Interviewed in her suite at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco on a national press junket for “Titus” in January 2000, Julie Taymor discusses Shakespeare, gore and Jessica Lange.
“Titus,” a revenge play with Shakespeare’s highest body count (14 dead), documents a fictional Roman general who returns to Rome a valiant hero after a lengthy, victorious battle with the Goths, opens Thursday in Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville.
Following up the company’s wildly successful five-week run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” this play features many returning cast members: Maurice Reed, Simon Crowe, John Hansen, Richard Beveridge, Josh Wilson, Cameron Shaw, Connor Saxon, Brianna Rodriguez, MJ Maurer, Bronson Delgado, Robert Fuson, John Carino, Brian Reeder, Kat Stoneback, James Cartee, Bethany Reed, Tony Giordano, Cameron Trieper, Austin Smith, and Christiana Reubert.
“Titus Andronicus” runs Thursdays-Sundays at 7 p.m. through July 30 and is FREE and open to the public. Donations are accepted. Patrons are encouraged to bring their own chairs or blankets for seating. Any patrons wishing to drink alcohol must purchase a wrist band from the Upstate Shakespeare Festival tent. Performances are weather-permitting of course.
For more information, visit http://www.WarehouseTheatre.com. For questions, readers may also contact Director John Fagan at (864) 787-4016.
Does your vision of “Titus Andronicus” include gratuitous violence?
JOHN FAGAN: “Titus” is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most violent plays. That said, our staging includes a good deal of “action” vs “gratuitous violence.” There will be sword fighting and other combat scenes. Much of the violence is very stylized. Audiences aren’t going to see a lot of blood and gore. With the color white being a very Eastern symbol for death, we use that color very sparingly throughout and only when something is “lost” or someone dies. With the number of bad things that happen in the play, if we were to try to go the realistic route, the show would turn into a Slasher Film and would take away from the message of the play. That’s not the way we wanted to go. In our version, Death is such a strong presence in the story of the play, that we have cast a beautiful woman (Christiana Reubert) in that role. She mourns with every death and helps to avenge every wrong.
JULIE TAYMOR: It really is not so bloody and gory. I see many of the same acts of senseless violence happening today. Just look on the front page of the New York Times. After all, the Elizabethan Age was a vicious period in Western history.
How much of the violence happens off-stage?
JOHN FAGAN: There are things audiences don’t need to see. We and, I think, Shakespeare are more interested in the results of bad actions than the parading of the actions.
JULIE TAYMOR: Much of the violence occurs off-screen. Shakespeare shocks people with human psychology, and when Shakespeare did (violence) offstage, I did it off-stage.
Have you directed “Titus Andronicus” before for the stage?
JOHN FAGAN: Nope. This is my first shot at wrestling with the piece.
JULIE TAYMOR: I have directed “Titus Andronicus,” “The Tempest” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” among other plays by the Bard.
What is the setting and aesthetic of your “Titus Andronicus”? Have you updated anything?
JOHN FAGAN: We are setting in a non-named Middle Eastern setting. In researching the play, we found many of the terrible things that are going on inside the world of Titus to be relatable to what is happening in Syria now. Before that, what happened in the Balkans, and the Southern Sudan, and Rwanda, and Cambodia, and the USSR under Stalin, and…. The 20th Century unfortunately made Titus Andronicus relevant again.
JULIE TAYMOR: Roman chariots are mixed with modern motorcycles and armored tanks. Shakespeare mixed elements from Greek tragedy, the republic of Rome and the fall of Rome with those from Elizabethan England. I did the same with today’s times. I’m a designer. I think visually. And Shakespeare’s dialogue is very visual. The blending of contemporary components makes his language more germane for today’s audiences. If we were to do “Antony and Cleopatra” today and try to recreate their time, it would be distanced and silly.
Who stars as your Titus and Tamora, Queen of the Goths?:
JOHN FAGAN: Titus is being played by Maurice Reed. Tamora is portrayed by MJ Maurer.
JULIE TAYMOR: Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange [both Oscar winners]. Hopkins was incredible. He really opened up and almost became Titus. He said he would never do Shakespeare again, 10 years ago, after he was King Lear. Lange had never done any Shakespeare before the four months of filming “Titus” in Rome. She was very nervous when she came in for rehearsal. But I could see right away it wasn’t going to be a problem and by the end of the shoot, every single guy on the set fell in love with her.
And who plays Saturninus and Aaron?
JOHN FAGAN: Saturninus is Simon Crowe. Aaron is Brian Reeder. Please don’t forget about Lavinia (Brianna Rodriguez) and Lucius (Josh Wilson).
JULIE TAYMOR: Alan Cumming fresh from his stint as the master of ceremonies in “Cabaret” auditioned for the part of Saturninus the day after we both won our Tony. He’s a great foil to Hopkins. They are opposites in style and even Hopkins said he was scary. That’s saying a lot, coming from Hannibal the Cannibal. Harry Lennix plays Tamora’s African-American lover, Aaron. Lennix is the only original cast member from my 1994 stage production. He has really grown with this character. He surpassed everyone’s expectations..
What is the age rating?
JOHN FAGAN: This would be a PG-13 experience. One of our goals with the Festival is to make the Bard’s plays accessible to as many audiences as possible.
JULIE TAYMOR: I fought the Motion Picture Association of America to get an R rating instead of an NC-17 rating. It was over eight seconds of footage in the orgy scene. That scene was merely comic relief, to show the extravagance of the nobility. It’s not erotic at all.
How would you describe the “Titus” experience for our readers?
JOHN FAGAN: This is a very exciting piece of theatre. As we’ve worked on the staging, it has been very easy to see why it was one of Shakespeare’s more popular shows during his lifetime. We doesn’t like to see the bad guys get what is coming to them? Murders? Beheadings? Betrayals? These aren’t just for “Game of Thrones” characters anymore. In fact, by the end of the play, I expect you’ll think the “Game of Thrones” characters are mere amateurs compared to the Titus clan.
JULIE TAYMOR: I think it’s a great play. It was a big hit for Shakespeare. And in Tamora, “Titus” has a female role far meatier than Lady Macbeth. Why do people make such a fuss about Lady Macbeth? We never learn what her motives are, whereas with Tamora, it’s understandable from the start. She’s a wronged mother.