“Troilus and Cressida” by William Shakespeare

at the Swan Theatre, Wednesday 8th August 2012

My main issue with the World Shakespeare Festival, as I have bemoaned many times on this very blog, is that collaboration has never really been forthcoming; the Shipwreck Trilogy simply used British actors and put them in a foreign setting, whilst Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad was little more than an international company being housed by the RSC. At last, however, we get a glimpse of what true collaboration should look like, as America’s The Wooster Group and Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company collaborate on Troilus and Cressida, creating a tribal, zany, intelligent and mind-boggling production which makes the mind race.

The Americans and the Brits worked on their aspects of the production separately before working on the finished product, so keeping in line with this separatist approach, it seems best to look at each ‘tribe’ in turn.

Under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, the Trojans are recast as Native Americans, living a happily sheltered lifestyle surrounded by totems which hold television screens which play clips from films. I only wish that I knew what these movies were, for the actors mimic the gestures of the on-screen characters, and I’m sure the choice of scenes is pertinent; what this creates is a sense of performance and a Zizekian struggle with what is “real” in this world. The pulsing, disorienting music for these sections, created by Bruce Odland, strikes a note of discordancy as this world is torn asunder by the violent Greeks. The intertextuality created by the use of screens is heightened by the fact their tribal costume consists of wearable Trojan statues. Though the performances are a little stilted, they force us out of a reverie caused by overly-structured verse speaking and ensures we listen to the language anew.

This is most evident in Scott Shepard and Marin Ireland’s Troilus and Cressida. Both have amplified voices and a crisp delivery, filling in the lack of emotion with an intelligent examination of the lines. Shepard (hard not to love post-Gatz) eclipses Ireland due to the strength of his characterisation and the plainness of Cressida here. This production is not about lovers, however; it is about fighters.

The British sections, directed by Mark Ravenhill, are a little easier to come to terms with, though this is surely due to their comparative traditionalism (which says more about us as an audience than the play). The Greeks are here modern soldiers, which creates an overall sense of colonialism as the (impressive) battle scenes emerge at the play’s climax. The screens here show a frequency line reflecting the tones spoken, which pits the RSC’s language-based approach against the Wooster Group’s image-based one (though this may be overthinking things somewhat – this production does that to you). More attention has been paid here to performance; Zubin Varla’s wheelchair-bound Thersites is searingly witty and Danny Webb’s Agamemnon commands attention. Scott Handy’s Ulysses is the closest we come to a traditional performance in this production, and pulls some loose strands together.

What this creates is an overwhelming sense of this production as a postmodern cross-cultural take on the play. It’s not an easy watch; the fact we have two entirely different companies means we have to adjust to the feel of each, meaning much is lost at the beginning of each scene as we make that shift. I also question to what extent this is collaboration seeing as the two ‘tribes’ have worked on their pieces separately and a cohesive whole is never realised (though this is, clearly, the point). With many people, this production won’t go down well due to the fact you can’t simply sit back and take it in. Nevertheless, if you pay attention and untangle the web, it’s difficult not to stop playing over this production in your head for a long time afterwards.

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