“The common curse of mankind, – folly and ignorance”
For those unclear, the ‘not-a-review’ title usually pops up on the rare occasions that I don’t make it to the end of a play. I usually try and stick it out as it is difficult to have so firm an opinion on something as to blog about it if one hasn’t taken in the whole shebang, but occasionally, just occasionally, a play makes its bafflingly misguided intentions so apparent from its opening moments that I knew within the first minute that I wouldn’t be staying beyond the interval. It was the running on the spot with a sideways leg motion, as comedic a thing you might see yet executed with deadly serious intent that got me (I didn’t quite laugh out loud unlike some people further along my row though), quickly making me realise I wasn’t going to enter the correct headspace for this production of Troilus and Cressida.
Ostensibly a co-production between the RSC and the US-based Wooster Group of this noted problem play of Shakespeare’s, the approach to this production was to redefine the nature of collaboration in a way to complement the play itself. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, the Americans, playing the Trojans (although re-imagined as Native Americans), rehearsed separately from the British company, directed by Mark Ravenhill after Rupert Goold withdrew, who took on the Greeks, and the two were only brought together late in the game to capture something of the clash of civilisations that lies at the heart of the Trojan War-set drama.
I was left baffled. Later, I was told ‘it’s the Wooster Group, you should have known what to expect’ – perhaps a fairer comment to me as a theatre blogger but a strikingly arrogant one to make to assume that the reputation of an avant-garde New York precedes it as far as the general public are concerned. Disregarding the fact that everyone has to experience something for the first time somewhere, I’d intentionally avoided as much as I could about this production (being on holiday for most of its Stratford run helped!). But much of what I now know to be typical-Woosterisms left me totally unclear as to their purpose: the miking and monotonising of the voices, the accompanying varying video footage which was sometimes aped, the knowing artifice of the costumes. It’s one thing to be open-minded at the theatre but when every single artistic choice leads to a question, it becomes mighty difficult.
It didn’t help that the actors’ performances simply melded in and around all these distractions, no focus being provided on characterisation or vocal work – at least with the Brits there’s a greater emphasis on this, free from all the frippery. But the stylistic change from scene to scene is thus like a chasm: with the video screens blank, Ravenhill has opted for a highly ostentatious manner with soldier lovers dragging up, wheelchair-bound hermaphrodite figures and random impersonations. From one side to the other, there’s a huge amount of distraction on show and consequently not enough theatre, as I like it at least.
Should theatre need to mean anything? Should theatre always have to make sense? Personally I don’t think so, at either end of the cultural spectrum for that matter – one can enjoy the escapist fantasy doodlings of something like Salad Days just as much as one can appreciate the wilful obscurity of the near-impenetrable I Am The Wind. So what’s the difference here? Partly, I think the answer lies in the source material and partly in the approach to it. Despite the irreverence with which the play has been attacked, at the heart of the production lies a deep reverence for Shakespeare. And whilst the programme notes trumpet the desire to find “a way to bring the problem of the play to the audience” – and I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare is ‘just another writer’ here – would the same unquestioning lack of interrogation ever be done with another playwright’s work.
Instead what we have is a staunch determination to avoid any kind of “imposed coherence” which has been taken to the very extreme in the free rein allowed to the co-directors and the consequent barely-there amalgamation. What this results in something rather alienating, indeed very little of what I saw on this stage seemed predicated on the desire to give us an understanding of the story of Troilus and Cressida as told by William Shakespeare. Indeed, to do so is apparently anathema to these companies and at this point, one does start to wonder who is this piece of theatre for. I’m all for being challenged with my Shakespeare – Russian Tempests and 6-hour Dutch Roman Tragedies have ranked amongst my all-time favourite theatrical experiences – but this kind of self-indulgent treatment seems so unconcerned with the connection with its audience that it just completely misses the mark as far as I’m concerned. Maybe the second half reconciled some of these issues, I don’t know but I ended up not caring, and it is that which is the saddest thing of all for me.