If some of the reviews are to believed, and if the number of walk-outs is an indication, the RSC/Wooster Group’s collaboration on Troilus And Cressida is pretty bad. In his two star review in The Guardian Michael Billington called it a ‘bizarrely disjointed spectacle [which] does nothing to enhance our understanding of the play’, Heather Neill in The Stage called it ‘a mess’ which fails to present ‘a realistic exploration of human relationships’ and Simon Tavener at Whatsonstage.com said it’s ‘one of the worst pieces of theatre I have seen on the professional stage…I have never heard Shakespeare spoken so badly’.
The RSC has fielded a strong cast and The Wooster Group actors include the Tony Award-winning Marin Ireland and Scott Shepherd of recent Gatz fame so if they wanted to enhance our understanding of the play, present human relations realistically and speak the verse well I think you can assume they would have done so but they chose to do something else instead. Let’s look at those objections again.
Objection No. 1. ‘It does nothing to enhance our understanding of the play’ (The Guardian). In a conventional production, Shakespeare is the artist and the actors and director are interpreters who stand between the play and the audience, like teachers in front of a class, explaining what it all means. But The Wooster Group has its roots in the New York performance art scene and for Elizabeth LeCompte, director of The Wooster Group, her production is not a medium to explain Shakespeare’s written text, it is an original work in its own right. The production is a response to, not an illustration of, Shakespeare’s play and not only is she not going to explain Shakespeare’s work, she’s not going to explain hers either. As she said, perhaps a little disingenuously, in The New Yorker in 2007, ‘I am not an intellectual. I am not trying to mean anything—I’m trying to have a good time’ so complaining that the production doesn’t explain Shakespeare’s text is like complaining that an abstract painting isn’t more figurative, that’s not what they did and they wouldn’t if they could.
Objection No. 2. It doesn’t show ‘a realistic exploration of human relationships’ (The Stage). Realist drama was a 19th century invention; it wasn’t the tradition Shakespeare wrote and performed in and a century of modern dramatists, from Ionesco and Brecht via Beckett to Sarah Kane and Martin Crimp, have rejected it. In his Twitter feed, Mark Ravenhill, who directed the RSC actors, describes the show as a ‘post-postmodern mash-up of a cubist play’ and LeCompte said, ‘When I direct, it’s not natural; it’s a performance’ so no, it’s not realistic, but in a good way.
Objection No. 3. ‘I have never heard Shakespeare spoken so badly’ (Whatsonstage.com). LeCompte has the greatest respect for words but little interest in the characters who say them, as she said of The Wooster Group’s Hamlet, which also prompted walkouts during its run, ‘it’s not the character; it’s the language; it’s the words that hold everything together.’ If you start from the premise that it’s not the actors’ job to tell the audience what to think or feel then the actors should deliver their lines with minimal inflection to give us the clearest experience of Shakespeare’s words, which is what they do.
If you look at what Troilus And Cressida is, instead of beating it up for what it never set out to be in the first place, it’s fascinating. Shakespeare’s play is a product of many sources; the siege of Troy, which probably didn’t happen, as told by Homer, who probably didn’t exist, partly translated but largely invented by George Chapman, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, with a heavy overlay of Elizabethan references. The RSC/Wooster Group production is a playful, theatrical and thoughtful response to exhaustive research, as documented in The Wooster Group’s daily video diaries, which matches Shakespeare in its eclectic collage of sources, contemporary references and conflicting styles and conventions. The Greeks’ bodies are modified by circumstance or choice, sporting an array of war wounds, tattoos, dresses and wigs, while the Trojans are wrapped in, or bursting out of, Greek statuary skins and wearing unconvincing Red Indian wigs on some of the palest actors you’ve ever seen. The Trojans’ spirit voices speak to them via their earpieces and give them different instructions every night, which must keep the RSC actors on their toes, and Scott Shepherd and Marin Ireland act out Troilus And Cressida’s love scene as Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in Splendour In The Grass – come on, that’s funny!
I’ve no idea where the Trojans’ little hops before they exit came from – they reminded me of skedaddling Hanna Barbera cartoon characters but if it was inspired by something more boring then I’m happy to stick with my version. As Mark Ravenhill recently tweeted, it doesn’t do to over-think a Wooster Group show, ‘My advice would be: don’t fathom, just allow them to be. Fathoming doesn’t work on them there Woosters.’