By William Shakespeare
Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte for The Wooster Group
Directed by Mark Ravenhill for the RSC
Venue: The Swan Theatre, Stratford
Date: Thursday 16th August 2012
This was always going to be a bizarre experience; fortunately, it was also an interesting one. Prompted by Rupert Goold, the RSC and the Wooster Group, an experimental theatre group based in New York, started looking at a co-production of a Shakespeare play, possibly Coriolanus. The Wooster Group took the idea on board and began to work on Troilus And Cressida, and when the RSC commitment became uncertain, they planned to go ahead themselves anyway (a lot of this info came from the post-show). When Rupert couldn’t squeeze every possible project into his tight schedule, the co-production looked finished, but then Mark Ravenhill came to the rescue. Well, all he was doing at the time was sitting in a cottage in Stratford writing a play for the RSC, so of course he had time to spare! (I jest, of course.) Still, out of this strange Frankenstein-like experiment of two groups of actors rehearsing the same play separately has come a weird progeny: like the creature in that story, it has both innocence and darkness, ugliness and beauty in about equal measure. Let’s give it a chance to breathe before we decide whether to kill it or let it live.
The two tribe concept was immediately apparent from the set. A wall of steel panels spanned the back of the stage with a tepee in front of it, surrounded by various objects such as metal drums, old tyres, etc. These were generally painted with bright colours, so it took me a while to realise what they were. This side of the wall represented the Native American location (Troy) and there was often a cooking fire, complete with suspended cooking pot, in the centre of the stage for these scenes. Electronic wizardry was also noticeable on either side at the back, poles with video screens in each corner and extra screens at the back of the stage and at the front of the circle.
When the wall turned round to the other side we were in the Greek camp, where they used a hospital trolley and screens to represent Achilles’ tent, and when the wall was end on to us or at an oblique angle it marked the scenes where both sides met in between, usually the battle scenes. The Native American costumes were a mix of modern and historical (I would guess) and their warriors wore bodies on their backs when fighting. It was as if they’d skinned more than a scalp off the enemies they killed and were using these trophies to show off their prowess in battle. I noticed when Pandarus was introducing the Trojan warriors to Cressida, one of them was a bit weaker looking and had no body on his back, presumably a beginner. The Greek soldiers wore British army fatigues, except when Achilles dressed up in a bright red evening dress, slit to the hip and with a low-slung back – very fetching. Thersites mostly knelt in a wheelchair, suggesting his lower legs had been cut off, and was usually in drag with wig, makeup and Spandex top.
The prologue was ditched altogether, and the play started with Troilus complaining to Pandarus that he’s still waiting to get Cressida’s love, whiny little brat that he is. Mind you, I wouldn’t have known that from the dialogue, as I wasn’t able to tune in to the accents being used for quite some time, and the actors’ delivery was rather monotonous which didn’t help. The American actors were also miked up, so the volume was fine, but they lacked clarity, which wasn’t. The talk between Troilus and Aeneas was likewise hard to follow, and I was beginning to regret coming. I did find some aspects of this staging funny though, especially the ludicrous wigs these non-Native Americans were wearing, and I was keen to see how the two halves would merge, so I stayed put.
Cressida’s arrival improved things slightly. Her initial exchange with Pandarus, spoken more quietly at the front of the stage, started to engage me even though I still wasn’t hearing the full dialogue. To view the returning warriors, she clambered on top of the tepee, with Pandarus standing just beside her. The warriors each came on stage, stood in a large circle at the centre and did a little dance before leaving. After Pandarus left, Cressida gave us her soliloquy quite well at the front of the stage before departing.
Now for the Greeks. Their arrival was pretty rumbustious; they were singing loudly to some heavy rock drumming, and the energy of the performance went up several notches. The dialogue became instantly clearer, and with no microphones we could easily identify the location of each speaker, which was proving much harder with the miked actors. This scene is very wordy, but with Scott Handy playing Ulysses we were in safe hands. He expressed Ulysses’ arguments so well that each phase of his reasoning followed on from the last, and all were necessary – no mean feat. Achilles had been lying on the trolley after their group entrance, but when Ulysses described Achilles’ slothful behaviour, the trolley came forward and Achilles even spoke some of the lines which Ulysses was reporting. I noticed Ulysses had a notebook which he checked to get Achilles’ exact words, which also suggested he had spies everywhere. Patroclus also acted out the impersonations which Achilles asked him to do, so we could clearly see what was going on.
After Aeneas’s arrival and the issuing of the challenge from Hector, all but Ulysses left the stage, with Nestor last of the group. He was called back by Ulysses, who described his plan for getting Achilles to cooperate with the other Greek leaders. His description of Ajax was scathing, but not inaccurate as we learned a few moments later when Ajax turned up and began to knock lumps out of Thersites. Ajax was played by Aidan Kelly, wearing a muscle suit which had ‘Ajax’ tattooed on the right breast in Greek letters, a Nike swoosh on the left breast (cheeky) and ‘I’M AWESOME’ plastered across his back in large letters. That was funny in itself, but his arrogant and stupid behaviour had us laughing often. He left off hitting Thersites after Achilles and Patroclus arrived, but he had already dragged Thersites from his wheelchair and left him on the ground. Achilles put him back in his chair, and then Thersites insulted everyone and left. Not a nice man. Ajax finally found out about the proclamation – that the Greeks would select their champion to meet Hector by lot – and that was the Greeks finished with for a while.
Back in Troy the king and his lords were discussing whether to send Helen back or not. Hector was all for it, Troilus argued against. I heard more of this debate than most of the previous Trojan dialogue, so that helped. Cassandra’s dire prophecy came over on the screens and loudspeakers rather than in person, although I did spot a woman peering out of the tepee towards the end of that speech; it may have been her, or maybe not. I suspect some dialogue was cut, as I don’t remember it taking too long to get through this scene, and then we were back with the Greeks.
Thersites’ explanation as to why he, Achilles, Patroclus and Agamemnon were all fools came across very clearly, and although I wasn’t sure at first about Zubin Varla’s portrayal, I quickly came to like his Thersites very much. The dialogue was clear, it commented on and explained the action very well, and his characterisation of Thersites as a Mancunian drag queen didn’t jar with this production. He often used a hand held microphone to deliver his lines, which worked very well in this version of the play. (And I learned from Zubin Varla after the post-show that he saw Thersites’ comments on the action as effectively being stand-up.)
When Agamemnon arrived, Achilles withdrew to his tent; the screen was partially drawn across but we could still see what was going on from our angle. Thersites stayed with Achilles, but Patroclus acted as door keeper and repelled all would-be boarders. Ulysses was pushed into the tent, and had a bedpan emptied over his head while he was there. Meanwhile Ajax was becoming even more vain and boastful, and the other Greek generals puffed him up as well, showing by their expressions to us what they really thought of him. When Agamemnon suggested that Ajax visit Achilles, Ulysses, while still drying himself off, cleverly prevented this by suggesting that Ajax was too important to run errands to Achilles, puffing him up even more.
In Troy, Pandarus had his witty exchange with a servant, and this time the humour came across much better. Scott Handy was doubling Ulysses and Helen in this production – given his lovely falsetto voice that was no surprise – and I liked the way this brought out the forced change of culture that both Helen and Cressida undergo. This Helen certainly looked like a fish out of water. Her clothes were a mixture of Greek and Trojan, she seemed disoriented and not at all happy to be amongst these people, but when the dancing started up she did join in a bit as if this was one of the few things she had found to enjoy in her new home. It was a sad performance (in a good way) and easily overshadowed the mushy presentation of this scene by the other actors. I only heard Helen say a few lines so the scene must have been severely cut, but apart from Scott’s performance it could have been dropped entirely for all the benefit I got from it.
The next scene showed us the first coming together of the eponymous lovers, and it worked reasonably well. With Pandarus sitting on his stool at the back making salacious comments, Troilus and Cressida spent most of the scene avoiding each other until the final moments of contact. We learned a few things about the Wooster Group’s techniques during the post-show, and this scene was a good example of how these manifested in performance. The actors spent a lot of time watching the screens to see the images, which were usually either from films that have influenced their creative thinking for the production or video filmed as part of their research into Northern Mid-West Native American tribes. On top of this they all had ear pieces as well as mikes, and during their scenes they had spirit voices which would talk in their ears, giving them messages to incorporate or ignore, or occasionally falling silent. That they managed to give any sort of coherent performance with all this going on is commendable, but how did it affect the audience perception?
For most of the scene Troilus and Cressida avoided physical contact. They sat on the stage together, stood and looked at the screens, did little dances or ran round in a circle. Their dialogue was connected, but they weren’t. When the moment of physical contact came with a touching of outstretched hands, the technology enhanced the moment with flashes from the screens and a loud noise to suggest an explosion or electrical discharge. The two lovers collapsed backward when this happened, an apt metaphor, but recovered to finish the scene with the prophetic vows.
I found this disconnection between the lovers less engaging, and it didn’t add anything to my understanding of the play. Pandarus was more engaged with both of them and as a result he came across much better as a character as well as his dialogue being more intelligible. The images being shown on the screens also didn’t add anything for me; there was usually so much happening on the stage that I rarely looked at them, although with this scene being a bit slower I did spot that there were stills from various movies being shown, images of lovers kissing for example. We didn’t know about the spirit voices at this time but I was certainly aware that the characters didn’t seem fully present, which was a bit insulting in a way as we were fully present, and had paid good money for the privilege! Despite this, I was again impressed by the way that Shakespeare’s text, given the tiniest opportunity, will reach out and hook the listener, keeping them interested and involved. So when they took the interval after this scene, the usual place, I was happy to stay for the second half to see how the experiment ended.
No so everyone. There were large gaps amongst us when the second half started with the Greeks hearing Calchas’s plea to exchange Antenor for Cressida, his daughter. As Danny Webb was doubling Agamemnon and Diomedes, he indicated the change of character by throwing a different hat onto the ground; when he picked it up and put it on, he was Diomedes, and spoke with an Australian accent to help us distinguish between them. He made good comic use of this technique, especially when Diomedes and Agamemnon were in the same scene, swapping hats briskly to change character.
For the tricking of Achilles, the Greek lords started over on the left side of the stage, with Ulysses lurking on the left walkway until the appropriate time. Achilles and Patroclus were centre stage, and I think Patroclus was wearing high heels by now – I don’t remember seeing them before this. The lords walked past the pair with attitudes of disdain, upsetting Achilles very much. After Achilles had registered his concern at being ignored, Ulysses made his entrance reading a book and again his subtle use of argument pushed Achilles in the very direction Ulysses wanted him to go. Mind you, it’s a dangerous thing to get Achilles worked up emotionally; he grabbed Ulysses at one point towards the end of their encounter and threw him across the stage; he had to be restrained by Patroclus. Ulysses managed to escape unharmed, however, and Patroclus was finally able to give Achilles much the same warning about his reputation, information which Achilles had been unwilling to listen to before. With Thersites’ arrival, we learned of Ajax’s preposterous behaviour which Thersites imitated for their benefit. He pulled his blond wig over his face and made nonsense answers to Patroclus and although I didn’t catch all of it, the lampooning was good fun.
In the next scene Diomedes arrived in Troy to take Cressida back to the Greek camp. Diomedes’ evaluation of Paris, Menelaus and Helen was clear, and then we returned to Troilus and Cressida after their night together. Troilus came out of the tepee first, carrying his boots and clothes, and as I recall it was a little while before Cressida joined him – I don’t remember what he did in the meantime. She was wrapped in a blanket when she did appear, and with bare feet. They were closer physically this time. Aeneas warned Troilus that Cressida was about to be taken away, then Cressida herself heard the bad news from Pandarus and she and Troilus said their farewells and exchanged tokens. She wore a long yellow glove while he had some cloth on his arm, and holding hands they transferred first the cloth and then the glove across from one to the other. It was a nice touch, but otherwise I found the scene a bit dreary. The singsong intonation they were using had outstayed its welcome and I was feeling less charitable towards these Trojan-only scenes as a result.
Cressida was handed over to Diomedes, and this time I think Diomedes was directly involved in the conversation. When Cressida was brought back to the Greek camp, however, the Greeks clustered round the trolley, which was now in the centre of the stage with a dress placed on it, and ignored Cressida’s physical location. They addressed themselves to a Cressida of the imagination who was sitting on the trolley, and kissed thin air. Meanwhile Cressida took off her blanket and other garments before putting on the dress provided; after this, she became visible to the Greeks and started interacting with them directly. It was a strange way to do it, but it did show her assimilation into the Greek camp, and may have been an easier staging given the separate rehearsals. I didn’t feel I understood the attitudes of the Greek generals as well as I have done with more straightforward stagings, though, and Cressida was still a blank.
The meeting between the Greeks and Trojans was enlivened by Achilles’ appearance in his red party dress and lots more railing from Thersites. The scene between Diomedes and Cressida, overheard by Troilus and Ulysses, wasn’t helped by Cressida’s relatively deadpan delivery; again the Greeks were making much more of their lines and the emotional undercurrents of this play. I did feel that Troilus’s grief and anger at her betrayal was justified this time; sometimes he comes across as a whining brat, or I find myself wondering if he would actually have been as true as he’d sworn to be if they’d stayed together, but tonight his reaction seemed appropriate.
Andromache’s attempt to dissuade Hector from fighting was on the dull side, and then we were into the final battles. Achilles struck the first blow against the unarmed Hector, and instructed his Myrmidons to finish him off; they wore white coveralls with masks, like fencing masks. Diomedes and a Trojan – no idea who, sorry – had a fight at one point. Diomedes carried a cricket bat and the Trojan had a lacrosse stick, which was an entertaining way of representing the two cultures having the battle. (The cricket bat was always going to win, of course.) When Thersites was saying his last lines (the “bastard” speech) he stepped out of the wheelchair and stood behind it, taking off his clothes. At the same time, the wall swung round and one of the Trojans was standing on a ladder behind the tepee, also stark naked, apart from the black wig. When Thersites finished, he ran off with the wheelchair, and the wall had swung round again so the Trojan was out of view. No, I don’t have a clue either.
The final lines from Troilus and Pandarus didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I’d enjoyed enough of the performance that I didn’t feel I’d wasted the evening. The post-show was interesting, and we learned more about the Wooster Group’s processes, some of which I’ve included above. Their choice of a Native American setting for the Trojans was partly to enhance the idea of a different culture; they wanted to get away from a generically bland choice that wouldn’t contrast so well with the British half of the production. The singsong style of speech had helped them access the meaning of the dialogue (didn’t do the same for me, sadly) and although they’re not trained vocally to project in such a large space – hence the mikes – they did have a day’s training from an American expert in Shakespearean dialogue, and were rigorous in applying his lessons by obeying line endings, etc.
The videos we could see were not usually visible to the audience, so a thrust stage was obviously a new experience for them. Given this new situation, they were exploring possible changes, such as showing film of the actual cast on screen. The British scenes didn’t have pictures, of course, but they did show the oscilloscope display at times. They had five weeks to rehearse together, and I felt the British cast were supportive of their American colleagues. I commented on the humour I’d found in their performance, and Mark Ravenhill observed that Troilus And Cressida had originally been published as a ‘comedy’! (Though whether that was just to boost sales….) The production is still developing and changing all the time as they learn what works and what doesn’t. There were a number of appreciative comments which were well deserved, and although I wouldn’t endorse this style of experimental theatre, I did leave with respect for the American actors and their efforts. I wasn’t so impressed with their director, who seemed to have that arrogant attitude which implies that if the audience doesn’t get on with the performance it’s their fault, not the director’s. I may have picked that up wrong, but that’s how I saw it.
For me, the biggest drawback with their experimental style is that is goes against the raison d’être of theatre, which is to engage with the audience (and preferably with the other actors). Most of the technologically ‘innovative’ productions I’ve experienced tend to have this problem; the actors are so involved with the technology that they don’t actually relate to the audience at all, or not as much as they could. Technology is great in many ways, and has been used very successfully in a supplemental role, but it can’t drive productions as much as some people seem to think.
Another drawback was the choice of a Native American or Inuit setting for Troy. This led to the singsong delivery (already commented on) and a strange clash between the attention to detail, such as the occasional chanting and documentary-style videos, and the ludicrous costumes they wore which made them look like children dressing-up. I found a lot of humour in this approach, but I suspect it wasn’t intentional. For example, I made a connection between the Wooster Group name (from Wooster Street, apparently) and Bertie Wooster, seeing their style of production as the sort of ‘avant-garde’ rubbish Bertie would latch onto and which Jeeves would frown upon, only to be proved right in the end. It’s not a flattering comparison, but it did spring easily into my mind.
Additionally, my respect for the Native American culture, born out of ignorance I readily admit, meant that I found Pandarus’s speech at the end didn’t really work. He’d been a busybody, true, and eager to get Cressida into bed with Troilus, but he didn’t seem as lecherous as his final speech indicates. The Trojans came across as noble and decent, unlike the war-like Greeks (again, probably just my cultural conditioning).
The disparate styles didn’t bother me so much as the inappropriateness of the Americans’ style for this acting space, and I would happily see this experiment repeated, either with more compatible styles or perhaps using another language for one of the cultures – what chance German ‘Greeks’ attacking British ‘Troy’? The stand out performance had to be Scott Handy’s Ulysses/Helen, and it was worth the other stuff to have seen that alone, though the other Brits did splendid work as well.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me