Troilus & Cressida: too clever for its own good?
Ella Griffiths isn't entirely convinced by a preview performance of the RSC's latest production
by Ella Griffiths
Friday 7th September 2012, 10:00 BST
Any production fusing two unique companies on either side of the Atlantic was bound to be interesting. In a refreshing response to the warring armies of Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’, RSC actors in Stratford-upon-Avon rehearsed independently as the Greeks, while The Wooster Group of New York crafted the Trojan faction. On combining ideas, the inevitable collision of cultures became strikingly apparent in an original, but frustratingly inaccessible, performance.
Each artistic interpretation was equally innovative. The RSC’s use of medical paraphernalia embraced the play's imagery of sterility and disease, with a glaring steel backdrop and unified chants of the cast enhancing the anonymous military camouflage. Receptive to themes of ritual, music and cultural belonging, The Wooster Group’s tribe of American Indians decked in traditional feathered dress - and entering through a teepee - was visually thrilling. However, despite offering an imaginative embodiment of the play’s duality, the revolving set didn’t quite work in practice due to a distracting lack of cohesion on stage.
Nonetheless, witty characterisation abounded. The Greek camp’s asthmatic Ulysses was excellently constructed by Scott Handy, while the flamboyantly tattooed Achilles, and Ajax’s rock star guise, were genuinely amusing. Zubin Varla, garishly cross-dressed as a grotesque and effeminate Thersites, was a perverse commentator in his soiled wheelchair. Again, the ideas were new and illuminating; unfortunately, with little explanation and some overly absurd details, the audience appeared confused rather than impressed. The Wooster Group fashioned similarly sharp characters, such as an alcoholic Big Chief Pandarus, who favoured a sleazy, sardonic monotone. It was curious that the American company all seemed to adopt a stilted, mechanical drawl - although it was unclear whether this was a by-product of adopting a Native American accent or a clever comment upon the play’s oppressively patterned roles and words. Certainly, Marin Ireland’s singsong diction strived for a complex and doll-like Cressida, playful yet fragile, but verged on insincerity. Her relationship with Troilus was complicated by the presence of four screens, each showing a pastiche of video clips which mirrored the actions of the couple. While reiterating the repetition of their tragic story, the multimedia dimension was less effective in a production that felt almost chaotic with the number of ideas being thrown around.
Indeed, the production was artistically self-conscious at the expense of being dramatically engaging, alienating the audience from the characters in a way that is interesting for academic essays but less for casual viewing. It seems destined to cause polarities of opinion: is it a brave venture that is intentionally unsatisfyingly and fractured due to the inconsistent nature of the play, or a failed intellectual experiment? Nevertheless, to see a play discussing literary reinterpretation so excitingly revived is nothing less than thought-provoking, making it a flawed but valuable addition to the World Shakespeare Festival. And for all those Part I English students approaching a set text surprisingly full of STD jokes, surely a welcome one.
The Wooster Group & RSC co-production, now at Riverside Studios 28 Aug-8 Sep, tickets £25; rsc.org.uk