Monday, 17 September 2012

Theatre Review: Troilus and Cressida at The Swan 2012 (RSC & Wooster Group)

Stratford Upon Avon always looks amazing in the sun

What could be more tempting than watching a play that’s rarely performed?  And about the classical world?  I’m a complete sucker for anything vaguely to do with togas.  So when I saw that Shakespeare’s little staged Troilus and Cressida was coming to the Swan this year I had to get tickets.

This was my mum’s first introduction to live action Bard.  Should we go to Much Ado? I pondered.  It did seem a safer bet. 

‘Mother,’ I said, ‘would you like to go and see a romantic screwball comedy with lots of witty wordplay and an almost tragic plot but not quite?’
‘Hmmm,’ she said.  ‘I think I’d prefer something a bit more, well, sad.’
So, Troilus it was.

A quick character map of Troilus and Cressida - yes I know,
I always forget Shakespeare calls Odysseus 'Ulysses'

Troilus and Cressida is about the two eponymous lovers and the breakup of their relationship, set against the backdrop of the Trojan war.  They’re both Trojans, but Cressida’s father is a turncoat and in the Greek camp.  When he asks that his daughter joins him she can’t say no.  Sounds familiar?  Well, this is where it all ends.  The rest of the play is a strange mish-mash of manly virtue and anger, fight scenes and anti-climax.  It’s a strange beast and has won the dubious honour of being called “problem play”.

The 2012 production is an ensemble cast featuring both the RSC (the Greeks) and the American Wooster Group (the Trojans).  It’s part of the World Shakespeare Festival, but did this collaboration work?

Right.  First things first, I’d like to say I have mixed feelings about this performance.  Let me start with what worked.

Stratford upon Avon. Can I move here right now?
The Greek Camp: The audience feels pretty safe in these guys’ hands.  Scott Handy in particular is effortless as Ulysses.  Joe Dixon’s Achilles is all shades of manly.  He’s kind of mesmerising actually – the stage works by rotating and the sight of Achilles slowly inching into view leaping around on an army bed to loud music, towel about to fall off is er, memorable!  He comes across as a petulant boy, refusing to fight for whatever sulky reason his teenage brain can devise.
I like the concept of the set and staging too.  The Greeks are the British army while the Trojans, Native Americans.  But more of this later.

Some of the Trojans are strong – Hector in particular.  And I did like Pandarus’ body language and way with words. There are some genuine laughs too.  The excellent Scott Handy plays Helen in super-camp mode.  And what better way to undercut the weight placed on the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’ than by turning her into a joke?  Paris started a war – for this?  The Trojans have no choice but to step in line, support their prince and fight.

So let’s move onto those parts that were a bit more questionable.

If you’re a theatre follower you may know this production got a bit of a roasting.  And it’s true, I did notice a fair number of empty seats after the interval.  What wasn’t working so well then?
I have to say it but I found (on the whole) the Wooster Group’s performance weaker than the RSC’s.  That’s not saying there weren’t some great moments there, but I’m not sure I really “got” everything that was going on.

Firstly this interpretation as I’ve said had the Trojans as Native Americans.  I did love their wardrobe – a mixture of traditional costumes and skins married with broken Greek statues (as kind of capes) and the detritus of western society.  I like the fact that these guys carry basketballs around and use them as temporary seats – it’s like they were living in a bubble for years and then, wham! their culture’s been surrounded by this new one and they’re going to take aspects from it.

I can even go with the TV screens.  Onstage large screens are positioned high in a few prominent positions and we get to see clips of documentaries and old movies.  When the Trojans have important scenes the actors kind of copy or mirror the actions on the TVs.  This makes for quite disconcerting viewing.  So in Troilus and Cressida’s love scene instead of close actor interaction we get this kind of distancing performance where both actors are looking over each other’s shoulder and mimicking the screen.  What does it all mean?  I was thinking about this and for me I see it as a comment on the outside influence of the media on a more primitive society; they’re starting to look to filmic representation to work out how they should act in their own world.  This distancing is amplified by the Wooster Group’s use of microphones and occasionally a distortion effect.  It’s quite ghostly actually – trying to work out where the voice is coming from.  But herein lies most of the problems with the Trojans – voice, intonation and projection.  Not only is it hard to work out where or who each voice is coming from, but the actors’ unemotional, deliberately stilted and Dalek-esque intonation made it really hard to follow the metre, rhythm or meaning.  Some parts I just couldn’t make out – lack of projection meant I didn’t have a clue what they were saying.  And if you take away Shakespeare’s language, what have you got?

So I really came away from this production a little confused.  Some parts I loved: Scott Handy, Achilles’ well-documented penchant for cross-dressing, Zubin Varla’s bitter Phoenix Nights delivery as Thersites, complete with wheelchair, wig, drag and spotlight.  I was left with some really vivid and often amusing images here, although you could say no revolutionary new ground was covered.  But for some bits in the Trojan camp I felt oddly disengaged.

And my mum’s opinion? 

She says she’d quite like to go and see another play, but maybe not for a while, and maybe not Shakespeare.  

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