Rob Campbell saw his first production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus about 22 years ago, at Yale School of Drama. He fell in love with it over time. It’s actually not an easy play to love. Oft-maligned for being salaciously violent and grisly — I can tell you, without spoiling it, that there are multiple mutilations, a rape, and a cannibalism scene akin to the meat pies in Sweeney Todd — the play has garnered many unflattering tag lines. Salon reviewer Charles Taylor described it as “very near to Elizabethan pulp.” PopMatters critic Cynthia Fuchs said it was “Shakespeare’s most notoriously meltdown play.” The 1999 film by Julie Taymor didn’t do anything to burnish the play’s reputation.
But Campbell said that he sees Titus as the work of a young writer just beginning to explore themes that later appear in King Lear and Richard III — such as that of the old man whose adherence to tradition is part of his undoing. In the current production at California Shakespeare Theater, famed local actor James Carpenter plays Titus, the Roman general who is anointed emperor at the behest of his brother. Anna Bullard is his daughter Lavinia. Stacy Ross is Tamora, the villainous Queen of Goths — and Titus’ arch rival. And Campbell is Saturninus, the unsteady power-monger to whom Titus eventually cedes his throne.
Always vacillating between his own self-interest, and his thin sense of familial obligation, Saturninus is perhaps the most interesting character in the play. He’s one of those guys who becomes evil by example — or, more accurately, because at the end of the first act he hooks up with Tamora. He’s the consummate stooge.
Or so thought Campbell, who plays Saturninus as an unreliable shape-shifter whose actions are hard to predict. Every time you think he’s going to take the high road, he turns around and becomes a bad guy again. Cal Shakes marketing director Marilyn Langbern said the performance made her shiver. “He’s scary good.”
But the real Rob Campbell is thoughtful and soft-spoken. He’s spent a good deal of time studying the play and psychoanalyzing his character. “He’s clearly a very damaged guy,” Campbell said, eating a candy bar as he waited for rehearsal to start last Thursday. “You see really quickly, from the beginning of the first act to the end of the first act, that his damage is dangerous. He’s immediately attracted to one of the two villains of the play.”
And it’s easy to see why, when you consider the seductive powers of Queen Tamora. To Campbell, she supplies a kind of “evil moxie” that seems unique to Shakespearian femme fatales. Ross, who played Lady Macbeth in another Cal Shakes production overseen by the same director (Joel Sass, who is quickly establishing himself as an Oliver Stone of Elizabethan theater), seems like a perfect choice for the role. Thin and bird-like, she’s capable of transforming into the kind of manipulator who feeds on male weakness. In Macbeth, she chewed up and immediately disgorged her husband’s insecurities, easily molding him into the type of man she wanted. In Titus, she’s vicious, Campbell assured. “I think Tamora’s confidence, her extreme clarity as a villain — that’s extremely hot. It’s a total turn-on”
Not every Saturninus is genuinely attracted to Tamora. Many directors try to soft-pedal their relationship so that it appears to be all about power and opportunity. Some actors play Saturninus as a lily-livered, ill-tempered brat — such was the tack that Alan Cumming took in the 1999 Hollywood version. Some even render him a closet homosexual, whose marriage is but a ruse. Campbell’s Saturninus is much more alluring. He’s a sexual being, he’s inscrutable, he’s obviously insane but there’s a reason behind his madness. He’s not a foil for Tamora, but he might actually be a good partner.
Campbell has played other troubled men — including Reverend Hale in The Crucible and Ethan Watson in Sex and the City — and thus has no problem tackling Shakespeare’s most repellant bad guy (or one of them, at least). In fact, he plays the role with gusto.