Why Shakespeare is Julie Taymor’s Superhero

For the renowned director of the screen and stage, the Bard is a fantasy and a nightmare

(Marco Grob / Trunk Archive)
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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.

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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.


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