Continuing our season of blogs about International Shakespeares, here is a fascinating piece from 1623 theatre company about a project based on Troilus and Cressida. A new production of Shakespeare’s bitter and difficult play opens in Stratford-upon-Avon at the end of this week. But I’d never thought about it as nuclear in its impact before, until now…
‘As soon as it was announced in 2005 that London was going to host the 2012 Olympic Games, 1623 theatre company wanted to get involved.
Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s only play inspired by the heroic myths of Ancient Greece (via Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde); so we intended to explore that particular play in the light of London 2012, itself a British appropriation of an Ancient Greek phenomenon.
The first step of the plan involved creating an interactive workshop in which anyone could participate. We explored many ideas and settled on a Shakespeare fitness session that moves to the iambic pentameter (or the more friendly-sounding ‘Shakespeare beat’, as we prefer to call it). We took lines of verse from Troilus and Cressida and fused them together with aerobic sequences.
For example, participants marched to the beat of “Good arms, strong joints, true swords, and full of heart” while raising their arms, bending their joints, thrusting an imaginary sword and beating their chest. Throughout the session, participants had the opportunity to become Greek and Trojan warriors before feeling the battle fatigue of the characters at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play. Each session would end with stretches that related to Pandarus’ descriptions of Helen of Troy such as “the mortal Venus”, “heart-blood of beauty” and “love’s visible soul”, to remind the warrior-participants why they were fighting.
Derbyshire County Council, Igniting Ambition (the Cultural Olympiad in the East Midlands) and EMDA (East Midlands Development Agency) funded the developmental stage of the project. They also provided the funding for the first 20 sessions of what became known as The Great Shakespearean Workout, which took place at festivals across our home county of Derbyshire as well as at the Glastonbury Festival, Sheffield 24-Hour Shakespeare Marathon and the Watch This Space Festival at the National Theatre.
Since the workout was launched in April 2010 at Royal Derby Hospital (who helped us with the health-and-safety elements of the workout), more than 90 sessions have taken place at festivals, schools and colleges and nearly 4,000 people – including young people, over 50s and community groups – have taken part.
The workout has also been awarded the London 2012 Inspire Mark for the way it brings together arts and physical activity and there will be a commemorative plaque for the project and its achievements in the Olympic Park as part of the London 2012 legacy.
The next phase of the plan was to develop a production of Troilus and Cressida with a theatre company based in a different country to ours. In a meeting with Ann Wright, head of arts at Derbyshire County Council, our artistic director and producer Ben Spiller discussed how well Derbyshire has established and developed business links with Japan through Toyota, but cultural links are not as strong as they could be. Shortly after the meeting, Ben saw the work of a Tokyo-based theatre company called A-Light at the Edinburgh Festival, where they performed a Shakespeare-inspired piece called Death of a Samurai. Ben met the company and an exciting conversation began.
Following this, Ben and 1623 associate artists Christopher Lydon and Nathan Masterson visited the Embassy of Japan in London for a number of cultural activities including kabuki and music demonstrations. From this, the whole company researched traditional Japanese theatre, bushido (the samurai code) and the way it relates to the theme of honour in Troilus and Cressida. Conversations with A-Light continued to help the project grow.
Funding was secured from Derbyshire County Council, Derby City Council, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and Igniting Ambition for a production of Troilus and Cressida that explores the theme of honour in Ancient Greek, British and Japanese culture. We were unsuccessful with our Arts Council England bid, which would have made it possible for us to work closely with A-Light in their home city of Tokyo and welcome them to our home county of Derbyshire for further artistic collaboration.
Despite this, we continued the international collaboration, which resulted in an on-line production of Troilus and Cressida with Japanese influences. We uprooted the play from its Trojan War setting and replanted it in a futuristic nuclear war. Taking inspiration from the moment in Shakespeare’s play when Pandarus appears suddenly from behind a curtain after Troilus and Cressida have had sex, we created a digital world of surveillance and voyeurism. Uncle Pandarus became the link between the audience and the world of the play through his blog, which he updated from his bunker.
To bring in the influences from Japan, Pandarus became an enthusiast of Japanese culture and we referenced the horror of Hiroshima through the explosion of an atomic bomb, which started off the production. The world had ended and Pandarus used his CCTV footage, intercepted phone calls and videos to tell the story of his niece and her lover Troilus as a parable to warn any survivors against future military conflict. In Shakespeare’s play, Pandarus is something of an aesthete, so we made him a manga artist in our version.
In May and June 2012, director Ben Spiller and producer Christopher Lydon worked with digital artist Darius Powell on blog design and video, visual artist Katy Coope on the manga, fight director Paul Smith from Lostboys Productions and actors including Jamie Brown (Troilus), Katherine Glenn (Cressida) and Nathan Masterson (Pandarus). In July, the blog went live and Uncle Pandarus updated his daily blog to tell the tale of Troilus and Cressida before he died of nuclear-related disease.
More than 3,000 people have visited the blog so far and Uncle Pandarus’ bunker will be recreated as an interactive installation at the Royal Shakespeare Company before the end of the year. Just as London 2012 aims to ‘inspire a generation’, we’re aiming to do the same through our digital Shakespeare production. The blog is still online at www.unclepandarus.com. ‘
submitted by Ben Spiller, Artistic Director and Producer of 1623 theatre company