Year of Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida (RSC)TragedyYear of Shakespeare

  • PaulPrescott

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte for the Wooster Group (New York, USA) and Mark Ravenhill for the RSC (Stratford-on-Avon, UK) at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon and the Riverside Studios, London.

By Paul Prescott, University of Warwick

Many will remember this, with a shudder, as the worst Troilus and Cressida they have ever seen. Only a few will remember it as the best. RSC actors played the besieging Greeks as contemporary British troops in e.g. Afghanistan. The Woosters played the Trojans as Native Americans. The two companies rehearsed for five weeks an ocean apart, then five weeks together in the UK. The RSC-Greeks were not especially controversial: they ‘spoke the verse’ and despite some self-consciously camp flourishes, largely behaved like naturalistic actors going about their business. (For many, Scott Handy’s Ulysses cut a Sisyphean figure, trying in his long speeches to roll the rock of Lucidity up a steep and undefeatable mountain of Confusion.) The Wooster-Trojans consisted of mostly Caucasian actors sporting a collage of head-feathers, black wigs and Styrofoam bodysuits. They emerged from a shabby teepee, brandished lacrosse sticks, and spoke through head mikes in that gentle, sing-songy and slightly stoned accent to be heard on reservations in the upper Midwest and the Canadian North. Their speech and gesture more or less imitated and synchronized with the series of muted film and television clips featuring First Nationers or Inuits or Warren Beatty that played on several irritatingly small monitors. When the Greeks and Trojans met the styles inevitably clashed.

There is no easy or quick way of dissecting the result of this mash-up. Public enquiries into major train crashes can take months to reach a full and considered verdict. No one listens to Cassandra of course, but last night I inadvertently tuned in just as she foresaw the death of Hector and imagined a spectacle in which ‘distraction, frenzy and amazement / Like witless antics, one another meet’ (5.3.85-6). The phrase ‘witless antics’ had a peculiar force. Cassandra means something like ‘crazy clowns’ and sees the fall of Troy as an hallucinogenic madhouse, but in architectural terms an ‘antic’ is a representation that is ‘purposely monstrous, caricatured, or incongruous, of objects of the animal or the vegetable kingdom.’ By this definition, the Wooster’s work – clearly bent on interrogating what we might mean by authenticity, performance and acting – ‘antics’ ethnicity. But how witty or witless were these antics?

Let us plunge down the postmodern rabbit hole of having White-Actors-As-‘Trojans’-As-White-Actors-As-Ersatz-Native-Americans. The most obvious explanation: when invited to represent the United States in a transatlantic collaboration, the Wooster Group scratched its head and thought: ‘Hmm, what does it mean to be American?’ The Trojans are the victims of a retaliatory foreign invasion, so how could an analogy possibly be found in the recent imperial past of the long American Century? In search of an American identity that might betoken victimhood, and undeterred by the paucity of Native Americans in the company, the Woosters decide that ‘Troy’ is a reservation. (There may also be a suggestion here that White America has certain fantasies and foundational myths, just as Shakespeare’s audiences would have seen in, and projected onto, ‘Troy’ a genesis story of sorts. But ‘just as’ is doing a lot of work there.) To impersonate Native Americans naturalistically would reek either of exploitation, minstrelsy or old-fashioned ‘acting’, so at every point the Woosters draw attention to the constructed nature of the representation: wigs and other appendages are obviously fake; the actors mimic cinematic depictions; unheard by us, dialogue from the films plays in their earpieces, and so on. Thus the whole performance is placed within inverted commas and we are ushered into a world of simulacra but no authentic substance. (Indeed, Hollywood’s favourite Frenchman, Jean Baudrillard, is name-checked in the programme.) This was a long evening and there was plenty of time to think and by the end of the show I was about 60% satisfied with this ‘explanation’ of the riddle the Woosters had apparently set us.

Then I stayed for a talkback event and learned the following: 1) The original invitation to collaborate on the play arrived when the Wooster Group was already experimenting with the Upper-Midwestern accent, so their interest in the sound preceded their interest in the play. 2) The choice of the accent was clinched, according to Scott Shepherd (Troilus), when the company first worked on the long Trojan council scene (2.2). They were trying, he related, to get beyond the difficulty of the speeches, to something ‘more naïve’ and ‘simple’, less pretentious. Speaking in the Amerindian idiom brought out words like ‘honour’, ‘sky’ etc. 3) While the artificially amplified voices is standard Wooster shtick and may carry all sorts of profound significance, Elizabeth LeCompte revealed that the main reason why the Americans were miked (while the British were not) is that her actors aren’t trained to project their voices, even in an auditorium as intimate as the Swan (if this was a joke, I commend her for keeping an utterly straight face as she delivered it). All of which led to the strong suspicion that the central interpretive choice of this production was haphazard, whimsical, perhaps a little offensive (‘oh, those charmingly naïve natives!’) and not especially profound or witty.

Then I read the programme and grew even more suspicious. The notes informed us that costume, prop and teepee designer Folkert De Jong’s medium of choice is Styrofoam, ‘a material that is fragile, pliable, lightweight and modern and which will never decompose.’ Elsewhere, we learned that Styrofoam is ‘a proprietary substance invented and owned by Dow Chemical Company, made from a liquid hydrocarbon manufactured from petroleum. […] It is toxic to marine and land animals’. It is a melancholy thought that burial by sea is not an ethical option for the disposal of these costumes and that their ultimate fate will to be burned or burièd. But why is the artist crowing about buying and using materials that directly profit the company that is implicated in the Bhopal disaster and whose sponsorship of the Olympic Stadium ‘wrap’ recently caused such controversy? And why do I have to fork out another £4 to discover in the programme a point that would have been impossible, without specialist prior knowledge, to deduce from the performance? This is the kind of radical critique with which multinational corporations can afford to be intensely relaxed. In the light of this obscure posturing, the full back-page programme advert for British Petroleum looked even more than usually triumphalist.

But then again, once one had adjusted to the ostensible oddness of the Woosters, there wasn’t anything here that surprised or shocked. The Trojans were noble and doomed; the Greeks were devious and/or narcissistic – it’s a crude reading of the play, but not an unfamiliar one. It was surprising to hear the Wooster actors recall recent workshops on verse-speaking with the Globe’s Tim Carroll and piously relate their own dedication to getting the stresses right. Revealing too was Mark Ravenhill’s insistence that by producing something ‘inconsistent in tone, unreliable in information and driven by contradiction then maybe we can create the realistic theatre that Shakespeare was looking for’. So, far from being avant-garde, everything is actually as Shakespeare wrote and wanted it after all! This (highly covert) deference might also explain why so much of the text was retained when it was clearly of so little interest. Why not cut much more radically and then really exploit what’s left as a springboard for the kind of theatre you actually want to make?

After the first preview on 3rd August, Mark Ravenhill tweeted: ‘Only 76 walk outs […] Are we being radical enough?’ This is facetious, but it’s worth pointing out that a) 76 is one person in six in a Swan-capacity audience; b) not all those people left because their tiny bourgeois minds were blown by ‘radical’ theatre. Sure, some may have spluttered, unthinkingly disgusted, back to Tunbridge Wells or Aston Cantlow. But a majority left, I suspect, because they were merely bored by a production that was to their eyes and ears – and it may be cathartic for some to read the following words slowly and emphatically – half-baked, pointlessly baffling, ill-conceived, and sophomoric. My own feeling is that while I bear the actors no ill will and while I recognise the intelligent points made in the production’s defence by Andrew Cowie here, this was a disappointing experience. Troilus is a play that systematically punctures expectations and perhaps I had hoped for too much. The postshow talkback was stuffed with cosy platitudes about the unquestionable virtue of international experimentation and the sovereignty of subjective response. But if the point was to give us not a production but rather a work-in-progress, then ticket prices should have been cut, expectations managed and the contract between artists and spectators redrawn. While this production languished in the Swan, in the main house the Chekhov International Theatre Festival company amazed and delighted with its adaptation of Dream, an experimental piece that arrived fully-fledged and masterly choreographed. Comparisons are odorous, etc, but here was a virtuoso display of technical brilliance, serious play and, if you like, witful anticking.

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Author: PaulPrescott

Paul Prescott is Associate Professor of English at the University of Warwick. He is, with Paul Edmondson, Co-General Editor of Reviewing Shakespeare. (