Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" is the "Friday the 13th" of its time.
Like today's giddy exploitation films, it depicts the slashing and dicing of a town's worth of victims. The town happens to be Rome, but that doesn't make much difference. Bodies are routinely carved to ribbons. Hands are lopped off. Throats are slit. And severed heads are served up in a basket, covered with a linen cloth.
Some of the bodies are even baked into a quiche and delivered to a banquet table, where they are ravenously gobbled down by the unsuspecting progenitor of the chief ingredients.
On the lighter side, there are copious instances of rape, torture, adultery and stark raving madness. Even the weather in Rome looks pretty foul.
So unremittingly bloody is "Titus Andronicus" (to be broadcast tonight at 9 on Maryland Public TV stations and Sunday afternoon at 2 on WETA, Channel 26) that one can easily imagine some zealous Elizabethan pastor picketing the Globe theater for corrupting the sensibilities of the country's youth.
That, of course, assumes a high-mindedness that any viewer of tonight's telecast will be fairly hard pressed to maintain for long. Shakespeare or not, "Titus Andronicus" attains a level of excessiveness so quickly, and piles up the mutilations so regularly, that it is not always easy to keep laughter at bay. When horror is this bald, it becomes inadvertently entertaining, which is also the operating principle of the slasher film.
For 2 1/2 hours, the ludicrous and the gruesome march hand in hand, although no moment is quite so ludicrously gruesome as Lavinia (Anna Calder-Marshall), the once-fair daughter of Titus, struggling to reveal the identities of the men who raped her in the woods and then, to assure her silence, amputated her hands and chopped out her tongue. Taking the end of a wooden pole in her mouth and guiding it with the gangrenous stumps that are her arms, she laboriously scratches out their names in a patch of sand. Grand Guignol pales in comparison.
The plot is a tedious and complicated tale of revenge that pits noble Titus (Trevor Peacock) against evil Tamora (Eileen Atkins), the captive queen of the Goths, who marries up and becomes empress of Rome. Decked out in disco makeup and choked with junk jewelry, Atkins cuts a figure of high camp as she engineers the destruction of Titus and his kin. In her machinations, she is greatly aided by her two cretinous sons and a Moorish lover (Hugh Quarshie), who prides himself on never having had a generous thought. It makes for an early version of the arms race, with each side vying to outdo the other in acts of barbarity.
By focusing repeatedly on the bewildered face of Titus' grandson, director Jane Howell apparently wants to make a statement about the awful impact of violence on the young. And she has tried to impart a nightmarish aura to the proceedings. There's a lot of smoke on the premises. Some of the chopping and whacking is shot in fuzzy slow-motion. The crowds in the background, witnesses to the gory events, wear white masks and stare impassively. But her devices fail to ennoble the material and merely coat it with an unfortunate pretentiousness.
Some scholars, eager to find redemption in the least meritorious works of Shakespeare, like to see in "Titus Andronicus" the seeds of "King Lear" or, failing all else, praise its untamed vigor. (Boys will be boys, and young playwrights will be young playwrights.) But there is a far simpler rationale for this "Titus Andronicus." It is part of "The Shakespeare Plays," a joint project by BBC-TV and Time-Life Television to tape all of the Bard's works for the small screen. Sooner or later, they had to do this one.