Troilus and Cressida

William Shakespeare
The Wooster Group and Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Greg Mehrten (Pandarus), Scott Shepherd (Troilus), Bruce Odand (Priam) Credit: Hugo Glendinning
Zubin Varla (Thersites) Credit: Hugo Glendinning
Aidan Kelly (Ajax), Scott Handy Ulysses), Clifford Samuel (Nestor) Credit: Hugo Glendinning

Imagine a world where two theatre companies from two continents rehearse in isolation to create the opposing factions of a militaristic, Homeric love story. Imagine that world coming together, forging an identity as a collaborative whole, the resulting drama a heady exploration of cultural difference and differentiation. Imagine the result of this brave new World of Shakespeare Festival innovation as a night of creative magic. The RSC/Wooster Group Troilus and Cressida venture offered such hope. Imagine.

Imagine now a stage dominated by a Day-Glo daubed American Indian tepee, a strategically placed old tyre, odd handicraft items, all fronting a virgin steel backdrop longing to be beaten into Detroit automobile shapeliness. Imagine the Swan stage embraced by four high-mounted, uncomfortably hotel-room sized TV monitors, angled to face centre stage, and a slightly larger upstage elevated television whose blackness is only broken by a waft of virtual smoke, as if emanating from the tepee’s topmost point. Imagine this claustrophic world peopled by decidedly white Caucasian males and females dressed half in the Native American attire of a John Wayne movie, and half in latex cloaks that suggest ancient Greek statuary in wobbly rubbery detail.

Imagine these same actors prancing and grimacing their way through Shakespeare’s text, interspersing their lines with odd guttural noises and animal sounds, all amplified by Britney Spears-inspired face microphones whose power comes from black battery packs strapped to waists (or, more uncomfortably, worn as unfortunate man-bras).

As the actors perform their scenes, they obviously spend a considerable length of time addressing not each other, but following and mirroring the action displayed on the screens above their heads. Above them, scenes from an obscure array of American Indian and Hollywood movies provide an uncomfortable ‘narrative of physicality’, dictating the actions and stance of the live performers in often incomprehensible ways. Imagine also the arrival of the RSC actors, trying vainly to energize this mortally wounded production. The USA and UK combine in a glorious Technicolor theatrical tragedy of epic proportions. Imagine.

It would be wonderful to say there was some, or even one redeeming feature in this travesty of pseudo-theatricality. It would be wonderful to say that this international collaboration soared like an eagle over the plains of Shakespearean originality. What it actually did was obliterate any Shakespeare, leaving behind only the sullied husk of a nauseatingly misdirected kernel of an idea.

It would serve no purpose to point the finger of blame at the actors. They have to perform this farce on a nightly basis. Neither can the ‘concept’ be wholly to blame. The idea of uniting two companies, especially one that prides itself on its use of new technology, is a commendable one. There, however, lies the problem.

Why, in an age where collaboration in the workplace combines the ease and ubiquity of free videoconferencing technology with readily available computer hardware, should two companies suffer such a fundamental creative divide? Apart from some time difference logistics, surely someone must have realised they could combine their rehearsals over Skype? Apparently not. The Wooster Group’s experimental hallmark, of ‘interweaving of text and performance with technology’, in this instance brands them with the inventiveness and foresight of a Semaphore Dance Ensemble. With the World Wide Web, interweaving should be a simple affair. For this production, all the technological advances of the last twenty years seem gloriously forgotten.

If the production lacks one Greek iota of artistic merit, it is also weighed down with an equal measure of decidedly suspect racist imagery. This is not a glorification of the American Indian (a title which, as my Washington colleagues inform me, is now more acceptable among America’s reservation population than the ‘Native American’ soubriquet we are led to favour). Rather, it appears a painful parody of this persecuted, misunderstood ethnic group. Of course no racist slur was ever intended. Unintentionality, however, is no excuse for racial insensitivity, especially when American actors present themselves to an international market. Exploitation rather than emulation discolours this sorry production.

It is not hard to imagine the slow, noisome crunch as Shakespeare’s skeletal remains turn in his Stratford grave. This production should never have been offered to a fee-paying public. It is not worthy of the description entertainment, let alone art. I was fortunate. I did not have to buy my ticket.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby

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