THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for May 2011

The Comedy of Errors… again

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This post is a bit of a rerun. Indeed, during an endeavour where upon two like-minded folk review the same material in succession, it is inevitable that the findings are occasionally tautologous. In fact, I often hope this is the case. Those many moments where either of us read each other’s post and cry ‘jinx’ can become a form of validation, a sign that we’re on the right track (or traveling the wrong road in tandem at least). The reason I mention this is that I have very little to say about The Comedy of Errors that Ben has not already. So I might repeat a few observations. At risk of sounding like a broken record, here are a few of my similar reactions…. did I mention I might repeat some?

Now, I must admit my reading of this play was cursory. Mea culpa, I’ve not been too well and let’s just say a touch of the Bard-fatigue may have set in alongside the sniffles. It does grieve me. I do wish to give all of William Shakespeare’s work my full attention and I found myself mumbling an apology, at which point I distinctly sensed the spirit of Shakespeare whisper that he ‘s long dead, already made his money and couldn’t care less if some hack in the 21st century nodded off during Act II. So in turn, here is my cursory review.

The main mechanism of the plot is mistaken identity. Two sets of identical twins are separated at birth, one rich and one poor, each taken to the cities of Syracuse and Ephesus. Decades later, both sets of separated twins, each named Antipholus and Dromio, have formed a master/slave relationship in their hometowns. However, when Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse travel to Ephesus to reunite the family, the multiple matching mugs and monikers throws the town into instant confusion. Meanwhile, the ageing father of both the Antipholus’, faces execution for breaking a trade embargo, in need of a wad of cash to secure his survival. So the divided and clueless family is feuding as father faces the chop. I’m sure you can imagine how it’s all resolved happily…

First, like Ben, I too am amazed with the deft skill that an author could switch from the cruel and gory events of Titus Andronicus, to the slapstick goofery of The Comedy of Errors. Ben compared the shift in tone to eating fairy bread after a jar of molasses. Given the amorous missteps and wacky antics that identical twins can provide, I’d say he’s right (on the other hand I’d also suggest that reading Errors after Titus is a more appropriately akin to eating fairy bread right after consuming a pie containing the remains of murdered loved ones). Maybe the diverse switch was a titanic exercise in storytelling discipline, maybe it was a necessary change of dramatic scenery. Whatever the significance, Kudos Bill.

Second, I also feel that while the play is enjoyable, it is as Ben suggested ‘one note’. Mistaken identity is a familiar mechanism in Shakespeare’s work and it really is the only motor running this plot. There aren’t a whole lot of surprises as the players stumble into every fateful mishap. The play works off one idea, a good idea, but just the one nevertheless.

My key response to The Comedy of Errors can be summed up with one word: competency. Now, I concede that there is a real absurdity in my awarding The Bard a C+. This man’s output, in both quality and quantity, underpins the presence of this very blog and centuries of study. I on the other hand, struggle to even maintain a casual commentary on his work, missing my own deadlines and machine-gunning generalities in all directions. However, I don’t think I’m alone in seeing Two Gents as cheerful but clumsy and a little slow. Then Shrew was witty but blunt and sour overall. The Comedy of Errors works nicely, tightly plotted and funny and, as many have noted, displays all the Aristotelian dramatic unities. This is William Shakespeare, the reputed greatest writer in history, for the first time at his competent finest in the realm of comedy.

Finally, the notion of repetition is applicable not just to my own lack of originality but to this particular play. In fact, the notion of doubles runs throughout. Half the gags are about seeing double, a tale of two cities, two brothers and two sidekicks. As an audience, we’re seeing double as well in Shakespeare’s approach. The Comedy of Errors once again explores characters defined by misrepresentation, the pragmatic parameters of sex and violence in humour, relationships of power, concepts of redemption and familial restoration, etc. We have seen these all before and we will see these all again, and therein lies the trick.

At this point, I think of watching my wife learn how to poach eggs, a process that contains any number of variables: changes of equipment and technique, with vinegar or without, boiling water or simmering water, etc. However, the key to eliminating the variables was repetition. In order to get the pitch perfect breakfast we now enjoy on a regular basis, we had to deal a few messy attempts first. Likewise, so William Shakespeare’s prior comedies join a number of half-cooked eggs spent in the long process of perfection.

Third time’s a charm, and as the third comedy written in Shakespeare’s oeuvre (in this chronology at least) The Comedy of Errors is the point where William Shakespeare’s repetition begins to pay off and the formula comes into clear view. Indeed, the phrase ‘a comedy of errors’ is common parlance when referring to a humourous series of mistakes. This play’s title has become a cultural brandnomer, like Kleenex or Band-aid, and is an umbrella term for the larger genre. In that respect, The Comedy of Errors stands out as a sterling example of the Shakespearean comedic form and a continuing reference point for popular culture.




May 21, 2011 at 12:22 am

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The Comedy of Eras…

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This might damage my credentials as a Shakespearean, but this blog’s all about responding to the plays as a reader rather than as an academic, so here goes: I find Shakespeare’s comedies a bit of a struggle. I enjoy them in performance, but reading them’s another matter (which is interesting because I enjoy reading the tragedies but usually find them unsatisfactory in performance). As such, I was dreading The Comedy of Errors – a comedy I hadn’t read before – a little bit, especially after spending the last couple of months with the Yorks and Lancasters and the Andronicus clan.

It was a relief, then, to find I quite liked The Comedy of Errors. The play’s another exercise in mistaken identity and complicated couplings ala Two Gentlemen of Verona, the first play we reviewed as part of our blogging project. However, where that play was a bit rough around the edges, The Comedy of Errors is much more polished and assured, clearly the work of a writer with several popular successes under his belt and a growing grasp of the medium.  It’s a lot broader and more farcical than the earlier comedy, but that’s a virtue rather than a problem, as there’s also a greater level of confidence and energy underpinning it. It also shakes off most of the mean-spirited undertones of Two Gentlemen and Taming of the Shrew, and while servant-beating jokes and some of the more anachronistic comic tropes don’t really click, they don’t derail proceedings.

A large part of my goodwill towards the play might come from its proximity to the aforementioned Andronicus clan. It’s quite a switch to go from Titus Andronicus to The Comedy of Errors, from dark schlocky drama with gallows humour to, well, comedy of errors.  It must sound like I really have it in for Titus Andronicus, but I don’t: like I said in my review, I liked revisiting it but found it a bit of a one-note experience, and that note was pretty grim. The Comedy of Errors may be equally one-note, but it’s a distinctly lighter note and makes for quite a contrast: going from Andronicus to Errors is a bit like going from molasses straight from the jar to fairy bread.

Of course, we all know that’s one of Shakespeare’s greatest assets as a writer, that ability to flip the switch from one genre to another, to jump from comedy to history to tragedy to romance and back again, with some crossover here and there (the sadistic persecution of Malvolio in Twelfth Night wouldn’t be altogether out of place in Titus Andronicus). Few purveyors of entertainment today can switch genres with such dexterity, though there are definitely a few, like Danny Boyle and Steven Spielberg. In all fairness their output is a little more relaxed compared to Shakespeare’s thirtysomething plays in twentysomething years, though Spielberg’s been known to crank out a few 360 degree turns back to back: Schindler’s List was released the same year as Jurassic Park, Amistad the same year as Jurassic Park II, and Munich the same year as War of the Worlds.

But of course Shakespeare’s dexterity with genre has been established beyond a shadow of a doubt. What I’m curious about, and what we don’t really think about all that often, is Shakespeare’s audience. Would the same audience that lapped up Titus Andronicus also have lapped up The Comedy of Errors, or was Shakespeare writing for two completely different sets of spectators? In the collective consciousness, we have a habit of generalising Shakespeare’s audience as a combination of the great unwashed masses on the ground and the elite & powerful up in the balconies. And those who have turned their attention to the Bard’s audiences – Marxists, new historicists, cultural materialists – tend to see them as subjects of the state or sites of social energy, opposition, repressed opposition et al. We see glimpses of them in films like Olivier’s Henry V, Shakespeare in Love, and, I suspect, Anonymous. But who were these audience members really? And what did they like?

Based upon his long and prolific career, they liked the plays of Shakespeare. And Marlowe, Jonson, Webster et al. But they didn’t all like Shakespeare surely? We know Robert Greene wasn’t a fan, proclaiming Shakespeare “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide”. But he was a University Wit, not a member of the general public. We have diary excerpts from nobles and members of the higher echelon who saw and enjoyed the plays (John Manningham, for instance, saw Twelfth Night and compared it favourably to The Comedy of Errors), as well as grumblings from puritans who wanted to burn the theatres to the ground and piss on their decadent ashes. But we know next to nothing about the tastes of the individual audience members. Countless scholars regurgitate the cliche that theatre was one of many vices and diversions available to audiences in the early modern entertainment industry, alongside public executions and floggings, bear-baiting, cockfighting and the like. But did audiences simply converge on the theatre to see what was playing, sight unseen, weather permitting, with little regard for content? Or did those comprising Shakespeare’s audience, as I would imagine, have various tastes and peeves, likes and dislikes, as opposed to the herd of sheep portrait that we tend to conjure up when thinking of Shakespeare’s audience?

We have ways of telling what plays were popular and what weren’t – performance and publication history, surviving pamphlets and diary excerpts etc – but in a world where imdb, rotten tomatoes, box office figures, talkbacks, social networking sites, facebook and twitter feeds, and blog upon blog upon blog paint a vivid picture of what half the world is thinking about any given movie at any given time, it’s hard to conjure quite so comprehensive a picture of audience responses to the plays of Shakespeare et al. Did people talk about Titus Andronicus over lunch – “the scene where she ate the pie was soooo awesome” – or do drunken impersonations of Richard III to amuse their friends? Did some people swarm to a new play featuring Richard Burbage or Will Kemp while others avoided it because they thought those guys were douches, the same way some will swarm to a new Tom Cruise or Will Ferrell film while others keep their distance? Did people debate and decide whether or not to see a new play based upon its author the way we decide to read a book or see a film on those grounds, ie “The guy who wrote Antony and Cleopatra wrote this, so it should be good” instead of “The guy who made Trainspotting made this, so it should be good”? Did people turn their noses up at popular playwrights like Shakespeare the same way some turn their noses up at popular writers like Stephen King or (rightly so) Elizabeth Gilbert? Did people anally compare and contrast Shakespeare’s plays the same way we anally assess the output of some filmmakers or writers, ie “The Comedy of Errors was a big improvement, but Love’s Labour’s Lost was just too saccharine and schmaltzy”’ instead of “Catch me if you can was a big improvement, but The Terminal was just too saccharine and schmaltzy”? Would aggravated audiences, like the internet trolls of today, shout “William Shakespeare raped my childhood” instead of George Lucas or “William Shakespeare fucked my eyeballs” instead of James Cameron or, my personal favourite, “This guy is a real clown, and an angry one at that”? Ahem. Did audiences bitch about remakes and sequels – “not another fucking Plautus adaptation” – while still going along and seeing them anyway and thus endorsing a culture of artistic self-cannibalizing? And, to return to my original point of curiosity, did those who knew and followed Shakespeare go all the way, or did some skip the tragedies but eat up the comedies – the same way comic Adam Sandler draws in crowds but serious Adam Sandler sends them packing – or maybe vice versa? Flags were used to signal genre to audiences: white for comedy, black for tragedy, red for history. And just as there are people today who like horror but don’t like musicals, or like romances but don’t like action movies, I imagine there were those who liked tragedies but found histories dull, or liked histories but found comedies naff, and used the flags to dictate their attendance at the playhouse.

These might be moot and potentially answerless questions, but they’re interesting ones. Am I posing these questions to skirt around discussing the play itself? Yes, probably. And that’s because The Comedy of Errors is a comic souffle, polished and confident but, like Titus Andronicus, a touch one-note (albeit a radically different note).

I’ll hand the reins over to Anthony now to discuss his take on The Comedy of Errors and introduce Love’s Labour’s Lost. Until next time…



May 15, 2011 at 7:04 am

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[Aside] Kenneth Branagh’s Thor

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Thor is the latest feature film from director Kenneth Branagh, a filmmaker renowned for his screen adaptations of Shakespeare, as well as the latest film from Marvel Studios, the cinematic arm of Marvel Comics, which in recent years has given us Iron Man and its sequel and The Incredible Hulk, and will soon be delivering Captain America and, further down the track, The Avengers unto the world. It’s an interesting marriage of sensibilities, one I’d never expected, and one that works better than expected.

While something of a departure, Branagh’s involvement with the project isn’t completely unfeasible. He has, after all, directed at least one other mainstream big-budget effects-driven film, though said film, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is fairly dreadful. Moreover, Branagh has always, as his critics like to point out, been a populist at heart. Samuel Crowl has noted that ‘Popular film culture lies deep at the soul of Branagh’s creative sensibility’ (2000, p. 222), and in his autobiography Beginning (1989) Branagh cites films like Birdman of Alcatraz, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Great Escape as seminal childhood viewing experiences. The influence of popular film culture is also fairly evident in Branagh’s cinematic output: Henry V riffs on Vietnam movies of its era, Dead Again on classic film noir, Much Ado About Nothing on The Magnificent Seven and screwball comedy, and Hamlet on beloved epics like Gone with the Wind and Doctor Zhivago.

Still, Thor’s another beast entirely, and between the Marvel executives orchestrating the film (ensuring its storyline connects to the upcoming Avengers film) and the special effects, stunt and 2nd unit teams covering significant portions of the production, I couldn’t help but wonder leading up to the film where Branagh’s authorial signature would fit into the picture, or what would have attracted the studio to hire him. Actually, come to think of it, that second question’s not too hard to answer. Marvel seems to have had very specific reasons for hiring its directors: Jon Favreau was hired for Iron Man because his take was fresh and edgy, which was exactly what the property needed, and Louis Leterrier was hired for The Incredible Hulk because he could do action, which was a prerequisite after the supposed failure of the previous ‘cerebral’ Hulk film. And I suspect that Joe Johnston was hired for Captain America because he’s a solid, sturdy craftsman with a classical sensibility, and that Joss Whedon was hired for The Avengers based upon his deftness at handling large ensembles and intimate characterisation against epic storytelling backdrops. And in the case of Branagh, I’d say the deciding qualifier was perfectly simple: Shakespeare.

Thor’s a big, broad story that throws away the earthbound shackles of most superhero films of the last decade and unfolds across a cosmic canvas. Dispensing with the authentic settings (I use the term loosely) of Spider-Man et al, the property was certainly a wild card, the sort of thing that could have gone spectacularly wrong without proper dramatic grounding. That’s where Branagh comes in: having directed five films of Shakespeare as well as multiple stage productions, Branagh’s well versed and experienced in translating material that’s highly stylised and potentially camp and anachronistic into something solid and tangible. Moreover, I suspect executives were acutely aware of the complimentary intertextual correspondences that Branagh would bring to the film: the idea that his participation would invest the film and its Asgardian scenes of monarchical and familial disharmony with a Shakespearean pedigree. I’ve said before that I’m no fan of the reductive perception of Shakespeare’s plays as slugfests between duelling monarchs, but it’s an idea that’s taken stock in the popular consciousness, and at least 40% of Branagh’s Shakespearean output supports this cliché. The wannabe Shakespearean overtones are certainly compounded by the presence of Anthony Hopkins, a populist like Branagh but also no slouch when it comes to Shakespeare, as Odin.

So that, I suspect, was the driving factor in Branagh’s recruitment as director: grounding the otherworldly and potentially hyperbolic elements of the story and making them feel real, just as Branagh made the jingoistic and hyperbolic St Crispian’s Day speech feel real and genuine in Henry V without detracting from its dramatic power. I’m happy to report that he more or less succeeds here, which is a relief as it was never a guarantee: as indicated above, I’m no fan of his film of Frankenstein, and that’s because tonally that film is so shrill and is performed at such an unwaveringly hysterical pitch. Thankfully that’s not the case with Thor: Branagh keeps it real. I applaud Branagh especially for his handling of Chris Hemsworth as the titular hammer-wielder and Tom Hiddleston as brother Loki. I also give him credit – though I suspect most people won’t, including my dearly beloved – for his handling of the relationship between Thor and Natalie Portman’s earthbound scientist Jane. While the script sketches their relationship with a bare minimum of effort, the chemistry of the actors sells the romance.

However, while the film has numerous virtues, its shortcomings are many and varied. Visually the film is consistent with much of Branagh’s other work in its sumptuous ugliness: the content of the image – sets, decor, costumes, props – is sumptuous, but the composition itself is flat and kind of unappealing. The majority of the film’s problems, though, appear to reside at the narrative and developmental level. The romance between Thor and Jane, like I said, is barely developed, the second act is largely filler and padding, leaps in logic and all-too-convenient-occurrences propel the story forward, and there’s a sense of smallness to the story that can’t quite be shaken, not just because the plot apes the Masters of the Universe movie in transporting super-powered otherworldy beings to Earth and back again. For me, it just seems inherently and fundamentally counter-intuitive that the first Marvel superhero film to open up the canvas to a cosmic scale should spend half its running time in a small New Mexico dustbowl of a town. I mean, like most people I’m sick of New York being the default superhero capital, but when the big bad from another dimension turns up and all that’s at risk is a tiny town in an isolated location with a population in the hundreds, the stakes aren’t exactly dramatic. This sense of smallness extends to Asgard as well. The problem with most staggeringly beautiful, stunningly rendered but clearly artificial CGI landscapes these days is there’s little sense of anything beyond the frame. Say what you will about Tim Burton’s Gotham City being only two or three blocks, but the sets felt real and by extension there was a sense of somewhere beyond those sets, even if we didn’t glimpse it. Asgard, in contrast, feels troublingly tiny and confined.

If these shortcomiongs exist at the script developmental level and with the VFX, can we lay blame at Branagh’s doorstep? No and yes. The reality is that Branagh is not auteur-in-residence here: he’s operating in journeyman director mode. A Shakespearean journeyman, but a journeyman nonetheless, serving and facilitating the Marvel machine and its commercial agenda, and imposing only the faintest of his own fingerprints on proceedings. A bolder director like Guillermo del Toro or JJ Abrams might have pushed to iron out the kinks and creases in the story, and given us a more daring and inventive take on the material while still satisfying Marvel’s corporate imperatives. Ultimately, while Branagh may make the production work, he doesn’t make it soar…

I’ll be back again soon with my take on The Comedy of Errors. Until then…



May 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm

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I, Claudius, Spit on Your Grave: Titus Andronicus

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Titus Andronicus’s reputation precedes it, not to put too fine a point on it. TS Eliot called the play ‘one of the stupidest and most uninspiring plays ever written’, and others have been equally disparaging, if not more so. But the play also has its fans. Jonathan Bate, one of the most intelligent and perceptive of contemporary Shakespeare scholars, oversaw a recent Arden edition of the play and was clearly an enthusiast. Moreover, Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus introduced the play to a new generation of readers and filmgoers, and increased its stock considerably: it’s not quite Romeo and Juliet yet, but it’s probably better known than King John.

Taymor’s film marked my own introduction to the play. One of the last of the great wave of (not necessarily great) Shakespeare films of the 1990s, capping off the decade that gave us Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero Books, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Richard Loncraine’s Richard III, and Oliver Parker’s Othello among others, it’s not hard to see why Taymor’s film made an impression, and even to some degree validated the play artistically. Taymor contextualises the play’s violent antics within the long history of violence underpinning and permeating Westen art, entertainment, and culture as a whole, which is exemplified in Taymor’s opening scene with its blurring of time periods, of reality and artifice, as a child is whisked from his modern kitchen where he’s playing with toy soldiers into the play’s Ancient Rome setting. The film also parodies this culture of violence as entertainment, and gets plenty of mileage in its casting of Hannibal the Cannibal, Anthony Hopkins, as the pie-making titular super-soldier.

Taymor’s Titus has a lot going on, but I think readers who go looking for this depth in Shakespeare’s original play will be disappointed. There’s certainly plenty of clutter, but no real depth. Taymor’s film is one of many that have mined Shakespeare’s works for cinematic riches, but where others have extracted their interpretations from the fabrics of the originals, Titus strikes me as the case of a filmmaker imposing their vision on the skeleton of the original. And where Hopkins mines the titular protagonist for pathos and parody in Taymor’s film, Titus in the play is just a violent asshole, a blunt instrument. If Richard III was the villain we love to hate, Titus is the hero who’s a dick who we think is a dick. Of course, people have a habit of finding depth where there isn’t a great deal of it, as followers of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky testify – don’t get me wrong, I think Lynch is a brilliant artist, one of the very best, but there’s not as much going on under the surface as people suggest: the dude just likes midgets dancing, and more power to him – and some will argue that Titus Andronicus has plenty going on underneath the surface. But I’m not convinced.

In the past two weeks, large chunks of the Western world have watched a royal wedding in rapture and applauded the demise of an infamous enemy of the state, proving that monarchy and political vengeance are just as pressing in the public consciousness now as they were when Titus Andronicus was first performed. The bloodthirsty schlock that peppers the play also continues to carry cultural capital, as the international box office of the Saw franchise and the Stallone Renaissance attests. Anthony was quite right in comparing the play to the video nasties of the 1980s: the rape and degradation of Lavinia resemble an ancient Roman version of the shocking sex crimes perpetrated in Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave (hence the title of this piece), while the cannibalism and murder and bodily mutilation that pepper the play likewise echo throughout the video nasty canon, and continue to echo into today’s torture porn/gornography films ala Saw, Hostel et al. Interestingly, most critics and viewers who revered Julie Taymor’s Titus, with its Academy Award-winning stars and distinguished Broadway director,  were not even aware of the existence of three cheap horror-centric adaptations of the play released in 1997, 1999 and 2000 respectively. Moreover, it’s worth noting that the play itself belonged to an early modern equivalent of the video nasty and torture porn movement, the Elizabethan Revenge tragedy, where it kept such sadistic company as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (Hamlet also belongs to this wave, albeit a softer, less sadistic corner of the genre).

If it seems like I’m skirting around the actual play, that’s because there’s not a lot to say about it, and what there is to be said Anthony has already covered in eloquent detail. Titus Andronicus is grim schlock with not a lot going on underneath, and while I’m perfectly cool with that, and definitely enjoyed revisiting it, I don’t quite have enough in me to write another paragraph about it…



May 9, 2011 at 1:19 pm

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Titus Andronicus: The Shakespearean Nasty…

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Hey all, hope you enjoyed the Easter break, whether slogging through boxes of chocolate or the heat of San Antonio. Now it’s back to work, but before we discuss the infamous Titus Andronicus, let’s set the scene and take a brief detour into the dark history of the ‘Video Nasties’…

The ‘Video Nasties’ was a time of infamous and historic upheaval for film buffs, akin to ‘The Troubles’ for the Northern Irish, ‘McCarthyism’ for an American liberal or the Seduction of The Innocent inquiry for a comic fan. It all began in the early 1980s in England when the rise of home video saw an influx of films that made their dough from cheaply pushing the boundaries of sex, violence and horror. The more offensive of these flicks were pumped out to exploit the new, unregulated market and corresponding teen curiosity regarding taboo. If it was wrong, gross and ugly, someone was making a movie about it and releasing it on VHS for the post-punk, post-metal generation.

Soon, a growing conservative voice began to protest these films led by Mary Whitehouse, the heroine of the militant mum movement who previously lobbied the BBC to have Doctor Who’s tone lightened. Chasing the story, The Daily Mirror began to run banner headlines on the phenomenon, faking statistics and pinning everything from political protests to child abuse on these films’ influence. The iron maiden herself, PM Margaret Thatcher, then acted and legislation was created to have these films destroyed. The ‘Video Nasties’ were born…

Police squads raided video rental stores and suspicious films were incinerated, sometimes just for their titles alone (a practise which saw the Dolly Parton musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas destroyed). The resulting panic was mob mentality dressed up as moral indignation and resulted in a cultural hysteria akin to The Beatles burnings decades earlier.

Practically speaking, the rise of the ‘Video Nasties’ may have simply been the rise of small budget, straight to video film. You see, if you are an independent producer who wants to get more bang for your scant buck, then sex, blood and suspense cost almost nothing but get an instant rise out of your audience. This is why so many notable film-makers started out in exploitation film: all you need is corn syrup, young actresses and controversy is your PR. Nothing keeps a crowd on the edge of their seat like eroticism and fear, key components even of Aronofsky’s recent Oscar-winning, but low budget, horror film Black Swan.

* Taboo may be cheap, but on the other hand poetry, wit and romance are equally affordable. A low-budget need not drag a medium into the mud, unless the audience is already there.

The irony is that this malarkey was the best thing that could have happened to the nascent home video market. Ever since Universal’s Frankenstein was advertised as having nurses present at all screenings in case of ‘death from fright’, controversy has moved tickets for horror movies. Would Dracula’s Daughter (1936) have sold tickets if not for whispers of lesbian content? Would The Exorcist (1973) have filled cinemas if not for the scatological scenes and Linda Blair’s rumoured hauntings? Would The Blair Witch Project (1999) have made a mint if not for the hyped online claims of factuality?

Indeed, film-makers have lied about the ‘effect’ their horror films have had on audiences in order to boost box office takings since Nosferatu crept silently into cinemas, so too did many begin to intentionally brand their films ‘nasties’ in the hope of higher sales. Production companies actually began to advocate for their own films to be banned, faking letters of complaint to politicians. Never was demand so high when distribution so illegal. The ‘Video Nasties’ controversy sold papers for the media, legislation for The Tories and VHS tapes for distributors. In showbiz, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Overall, many of the seventy-plus films deemed ‘Video Nasties’ were simply trash designed to appeal to the worst in calloused audiences, though some were more complex narratives and some were genuine films whose unfortunate titles found them miscategorised in the melee. Either way, the lingering legacy of these films can be seen to this day in high profile thrillers like Seven, Hannibal and more gornographic drivel like the Saw franchise. In hindsight, commentators are yet to decide whether the case of the ‘Video Nasties’ is a lesson in the evils of censorship, a testament to the depravity of the human condition or both.

So the ‘Video Nasties’ became the stuff of urban legend. In the late 90s, many dark and desperate adolescents would wander the streets from video store to video store hoping to locate some worn and unholy VHS copy of Driller Killer or Don’t Go in The House. In reality, many of these films elicited boredom or laughter, their outlandish and unconvincing violence almost akin to a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

My own experience with the ‘Video Nasties’ is thankfully limited, though while studying cinema I would often unwind from screenings of Hitchcock and Lynch (hardly light viewing as it is), with night-long rituals of take away pizza and the trashiest movies possible. For these low-brow events my fellow film buff cohorts often hoped to procure a genuine ‘Video Nasty’, but in those days DVD and downloading was still new. We watched more standard horror films, like John Carpenter’s Halloween (heavy on the suspense, light on the blood) or Hammer’s Scars of Dracula (the one where Christopher Lee actually spoke). However, other nights contained more confronting fare from still respectable directors, like Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jackson’s Braindead or Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Such evenings of blunt viewing left us with our good taste feeling numb and in desperate need of a hot chocolate and Marx Brothers movies.

I do recall one authentic ‘Video Nasty’ in particular, Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein, mostly due to seeing it in 3D. All I can say is this: there are certain, shall we say, ‘medical procedures’ that are not truly experienced until they are seen in 3D. I still haven’t quite recovered from that one.

More to the point, obscenity and depravity don’t always make for a fun night out. This is true of Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Apocalypse and Titus Andronicus alike. Murder is to be expected with Shakesperean political tragedy. However, the blood soaked irrationality of Titus Andronicus seems, pun intended, to be overkill.

Now, I’ve just finished with ‘The War of the Roses’ and if I had a dollar for every stabbing, head in a box and murdered son I’ve encountered I’d be able to prop up the flailing American economy. There is no shortage of collateral damage in William Shakespeare’s work, people launch wars as if they’re lunches. So while there may only be around ten on-stage deaths (still less than other plays), what distinguishes Titus is its sadistic murder, mutilation, dismemberment, decapitation, rape and cannibalism. If the bloody events of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy were a homily on the sin of treason, then Titus Andronicus is just nasty for the sake of it.

Point in case, here’s the body count: The play opens in ancient Rome, the sons of the late emperor, Saturninus and Bassianus, bicker over the throne. Enter Titus Andronicus, an esteemed general who has just defeated the Goths and taken their Queen Tamora and sons as prisoners. Then, having lost his own sons in battle, Titus kills one of Tamora’s sons in sacrifice, even having the body dismembered and the entrails burnt. Titus lends political support to Saturninus, offering his daughter Lavinia as a gift. However, Lavinia is already betrothed to Bassianus. Proud and stubborn, Titus refuses to change his mind. Rome teeters on the brink of civil war for minute as everyone draws swords. Titus kills his own dissenting son before Saturninus rebukes them and takes Queen Tamora as a bride. Everything is status quo… sort of. At this stage we are privy to a badly patched up empire with grief and mistrust on both sides (all in an afternoon).

So Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron almost come to blows over their desire for Lavinia. Their mother’s lover, the moor Aaron, resolves the conflict by suggesting they simply rape her. The next day in the forest the brothers stab Bassianus and drop him in a pit then propose to ravish Lavinia on top his corpse. They rape Lavinia and in order to keep her quiet, they sever her hands and tongue. Soon after, Titus’ sons Quintus and Martius face execution for the murder.

Emperor Saturninus is eager to execute both brothers for the loss of his own, so Titus begs for their lives. Aaron later presents a forged message from the Emperor proposing a swap, if Titus severs his own hand in sacrifice then the sons will go free. Titus agrees and quickly cuts his hand loose, but Aaron returns with Quintus and Martius’ already severed heads. Titus gathers the family he has left, each taking a severed head and Lavinia holding his hand in her teeth, and swears vengeance. Titus’ son Lucius is then sent to rally the defeated Goths and the stage is set.

The play progresses in similar fashion. Tamora gives birth to a baby that is surprisingly moor-like and at this point, I grimace notably. My wife asks why and I reply, ‘I know this baby is as good as dead’. The page and my stomach both turn in anticipation of infanticide, but Aaron vows to protect the child, stabbing the nurse on a whim and mocking her death rattle as a pig on a spit. Lucius then returns to Rome with the Goths in tow and learns of the schemes on all sides. I hold my breath as that baby is almost hanged. More are killed. Even the standard ‘clown’ is slain, though he only appeared for one scene. Titus captures Demetrius and Chiron, slitting their throats in front of a gloating Lavinia. Then… do you really want to know how this ends? Alright, get this…

Titus mixes Demetrius and Chiron’s blood and bone to make a pastry in which he bakes their heads. Titus then serves this meal to Tamora before informing her of what she just ate and suddenly killing his beleaguered daughter Lavinia. Outraged over both deaths, Saturninus kills Titus, and outraged over everything, Lucius then kills Saturninus. Defying all odds, Lucius is now proclaimed emperor of Rome and that baby is still alive. Aaron is taken and buried up to his neck in the wasteland to be starved or eaten to death, whichever comes first. The end!

Mmm, too much?

So the comparisons to the ‘Video Nasties’ are not arbitrary, there are any number of correlations between Shakespeare’s gory opus and the content of those seventy-two illegal films. Overall, this play makes blood-shed a production value, the same way the incendiary Blood Feast first portrayed buckets of bright red blood onscreen. After witnessing Lavinia’s beatings and rape in the forest, I was reminded of the pivotal scene in I Spit on Your Grave (a low-budget revenge flick that verbalised the precarious idea that female empowerment is preceded by sexual assault, also asserted in such diverse films as Thelma and Louise and the recent Sucker Punch) or The Last House on the Left also. Titus severs his own hand and I think of Bruce Campbell howling in demented pain in Evil Dead II. Likewise, the mutilations, disembowelments and particularly the severed heads served for dinner is reminiscent of the insane murder-mystery Blood Rites. The vengeful Goth armies are akin to the threat in Zombie Flesh Eaters… though I admit I may be misreading the term ‘goths’…

So, D-grade schlock aside, what are we to make of the Shakesperean Nasty?

First, it is well noted that Shakespeare is not solely responsible for Titus. The Bard may have rushed it out with another dramatist, George Peele. Alternatively, Peele may have written it entirely and Shakespeare either dressed it up a little or attached his name for commercial reasons. Indeed, Titus may have already long existed, Shakespeare simply polishing it a little prior to performance. Either way, Shakespeare does not repeat this level of cruelty and gore and a century of scholarship has concluded that he did not act alone in this crime of a play.

Throughout this scholarly query arguments are often employed in an attempt to wash The Bard’s hands of the dramatic massacre. The common consensus is that Titus is poorly written, clumsy and in bad taste, though it was well received in its time. Indeed, there is every reason to think Titus was wildly popular when it was first performed. Perhaps just as we may accept Shrew’s misogynist context, we should keep Titus’ blood-thirsty audience in mind. Akin to acne-scarred teens guffawing in a screening of Hostel II, the Elizabethan crowds loved this bloody stuff.

Second, it is not as if we don’t find mutilation and depravity in other popular and classic literature. Serving ‘human’ pie was a social allegory for Sondheim’s demon barber of Fleet street. Even the tongueless Lavinia points out that her abuse is foreshadowed in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The first half of the Bible alone tells story after story of murder, rape, incest, baby-slaughter, dismemberment and bags of foreskins. From musicals, to ancient drama and religion, detailed, sadistic violence speaks to something primal in us all.

It is this primal violence that has marked Titus Andronicus for the ages, despite its flaws. Excessive violence and gore only offends us because of their relevance, after all. Many of us in western civilisation are blessed with rather peaceful existences, working our jobs, arguing with loved ones and watching too much TV. For those who live mundane lives, stories like Titus remind us of the carnal savagery we are capable of when unchecked. Alternatively, for those who have tragically experienced a measure of bloodshed, such a play can be cathartic or traumatic, but never irrelevant.

Trees of green and red roses aside, this can be a bloody awful world. Empires and tribes decimate each other in turn, vengeance is still a key political motivator and in a climate currently baying for a picture of Osama Bin Laden’s shattered face, we can see how William Shakespeare’s worst play still resonates with us. In all its crude nastiness, Titus Andronicus becomes a cautionary tale of the political and personal atrocities that can mark our world and a caricature of the worst in humanity.

Phew. Now, time for some hot chocolate and Marx Brothers films I think…



May 9, 2011 at 5:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized