Curator’s Pick: Shakespeare on Screen ‘Titus’ plus ‘Tromeo & Juliet’

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Production still from Titus 1999 / Director: Julie Taymor / Image courtesy: Roadshow Films

Although April 23 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the excitement and attention inspired by this date illustrate the undiminished strength of his body of work. After all these centuries, Shakespeare’s examinations of lust, treachery, and the human condition continue to resonate across the world.

Since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have adapted and transformed Shakespeare’s plays. No longer bound by the limitations of theatre, filmmakers were free to re-work Shakespeare’s raw materials in previously unforeseen ways. From smoky noir jazz joints, to Romeo and Juliet’s Verona as Californian beach-town, to misty castles in Feudal Japan, new worlds were created for the plays and, consequently, new life was given to the texts.

The ‘Shakespeare on Screen’ cinema program features two of the most inventive and surreal of these film worlds, with Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) and Lloyd Kaufmann’s Tromeo and Juliet (1996).

Julie Taymor, acclaimed creator of the Lion King stage show, displays her singular visual flair in Titus (screening 6.30pm Wed 18 May), her adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus. Often maligned for its excessive violence, Titus Andronicus has long been relegated by literary critics to the status of ‘second-tier’ Shakespeare. Undaunted by this reputation, Taymor attacks the play with gusto – creating an incredible, fantastical reality where the aesthetic and rules of the world are unchained to any one time period.

From the opening scene, it is clear that this adaptation has no interest in strict historical fidelity. The film opens with a young boy playing at his kitchen table in the contemporary world. After a cacophonous explosion, he is pulled out of time into an ancient coliseum, where Roman soldiers march in highly choreographed movements. Yet, even then, many of these supposedly ancient soldiers ride on old motorcycles.

It is a shrewd maneuver for Taymor; instead of hiding from the inherent excesses of the play, she embraces and amplifies them, crafting an absurd and anachronistic screen universe for the revenge drama of the story to unfold.

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Production still from Tromeo and Juliet 1996 / Director: Lloyd Kaufmann / Image courtesy: Troma Entertainment

A similar embrace of excess can be found in Lloyd Kaufmann’s Tromeo and Juliet (screening 8.30pm Fri 13 May). Produced by Kaufmann’s own legendarily schlocky production company Troma, Tromeo and Juliet is an unrelentingly crass and perverse take on the Bard’s classic tale of forbidden love.

Released the same year as Baz Luhrmann’s beloved Romeo + Juliet, this film takes place in an urban underworld of seedy nightclubs, body-piercing parlours and squalid back-alleys. Although it utilises most of the major narrative frames of the original text, here the Capulet and Montague families (the latter now instead named the ‘Ques’) engage in all sorts of deviancies and wild frenzies as their rivalry is stretched to a farcical degree.

The world of Verona is replaced by a grimy 1990s Manhattan, filled with slapstick violence and dirty humour, all accompanied by a classic punk soundtrack. The result is a lurid, exhilarating experience that turns the tragic romance of Shakespeare into a surreal and lusty schlockfest.

Written by Robert Hughes, Curatorial Assistant Australian Cinémathèque and Alexander Back, Intern Australian Cinémathèque

Shakespeare on Screen | Free film program
Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art
22 April – 25 May 2016

Tromeo and Juliet 1996 R18+ screens 8.30pm Fri 13 May
35mm, Colour, Stereo, 107 Minutes, USA, English
Director: Lloyd Kaufman
Script: James Gunn, Lloyd Kaufman
Based on the play ‘Romeo And Juliet’ by William Shakespeare
Cinematographer: Brendan Flynt
Editor: Frank Reynolds
Production Co: Troma Entertainment
Print Source/Rights: Troma Entertainment

Titus 1999 R18+ screens 6.30pm Wednesday 18 May
35mm, Colour, Dolby Digital, 162 Minutes, Italy/Usa/Uk, English
Director/Script: Julie Taymor
Based on the play ‘Titus Andronicus’ by William Shakespeare
Cinematographer: Luciano Tovoli
Editor: Françoise Bonnot
Production Co: Overseas Filmgroup, Clear Blue Sky Productions
Print Source: Disney UK / Rights: Roadshow

Australian Cinémathèque
GOMA is the only Australian art gallery with purpose-built facilities dedicated to film and the moving image and offers a rare opportunity to see films presented on the big screen as they were intended, and features many 35mm prints sourced from film archives around the world and screened in one of Australia’s last 35mm film venues.