Troilus and Cressida, Swan Stratford, 10 August 2012
Director Mark Ravenhill kept of tally of the number of walkouts from the early performances, while The Wooster Group responded to one individual’s complaint that it was “most offensive” by congratulating themselves on the superlative.
This was an experimental production that elicited an extreme response from some spectators.
The co-production between the RSC and The Wooster Group had each company rehearse separately. The resulting clash of theatrical styles was intended to reflect the clash of nations in the play.
The RSC played the Greeks as British/Commonwealth troops using their standard acting and staging, while The Wooster Group under their director Elizabeth LeCompte played the Trojans as Native Americans using innovative techniques. The most remarkable of these saw the actors copying the movements of (mostly Inuit) people from film extracts shown on four monitors at the corners of the thrust.
Each group used one side of a revolve. The Wooster Group had a tipi and campfire to represent the Trojan camp, while on the other side the RSC played against a mirror with a hospital trolley and screen used for Achilles’ tent. The divide was turned edge on for the later scenes where both sides came together in battle.
Dispensing with the prologue (reinserted for London run), the performance began with Troilus (Scott Shepherd) telling Pandarus (Greg Mehrten) of his love for Cressida (1.1). They wore Native American garb and talked in a flat monotone, meant to approximate to an authentic speech pattern.
This had the effect of making the text appear to emanate from a strange alien culture. Indeed, from a 21st century British perspective, the world of the Native Americans is no less foreign than that of the historic Trojans. The Wooster Group staging brought out this cultural distance very effectively. Placing the language of Shakespeare in this setting also served to remind us of the cultural gap between us and the early modern culture that shaped the play.
Pandarus was slightly camp and paunchy. He had a blue bottle, which he held to his side of his head and jerked backwards as if drinking from it. This was a sideways nod to native alcoholism. He also intermittently sang a song about an historical land grab.
Aeneas (Andrew Schneider) wore armour made from Styrofoam in the form of a Greek statue strapped to his back. He asked why Troilus was not on the field of battle
When Pandarus spoke to Cressida (Marin Ireland) in praise of Troilus, she avoided eye-contact with him, looking instead at the monitors facing her at the front of the thrust (1.2). Whether this was the result of her monitor-watching or an attempt to replicate native avoidance of eye-contact with a respected person, she appeared to be strangely absent from events. This made her wonderfully enigmatic. This departure from naturalistic acting was compelling to watch.
Pandarus and Cressida watched the Trojans returning from battle with Cressida climbing to the top of the tipi for a better view.
Cressida explained one obscure term by expanding it, so that she spoke of “a bawd (a pimp)”. Given the opacity of much of the language this was an odd word to elucidate.
Cressida’s final speech in 1.2, in which she admitted liking Troilus but did not want to seem too keen “Achievement is command; ungained, beseech”, was especially moving. She was enigmatically distracted, perhaps the outward sign of deep-seated love for Troilus.
As with other non-standard practices within The Wooster Group’s scenes, it had the effect of focusing on the spoken word. The overload of novelty almost cancelled out the theatrical to make it a reading.
The revolve turned to show a plain mirrored wall as the Greeks entered to the sound of pumping music looking exuberant (1.3). But the music quickly went silent and the Greeks physically wilted. Unsuccessful in battle, they lay wounded, one on a hospital bed.
This brief sequence formed a prologue showing their confident arrival to besiege Troy and the subsequent lack of success that had broken their morale.
The rapid transition from bravado to despondency made sense of Agamemnon’s (Danny Webb) opening question “What grief hath set the jaundice on your cheeks?” He waved a small book saying their problems were the “trials of great Jove”.
Ulysses pinned down to the problem to Achilles’ lack of respect. Scott Handy’s Ulysses was the stand-out performance on the RSC side. When he spoke it was like he had his own personal key that unlocked the power of the language.
Like all the Greeks in this first scene Ulysses wore modern camouflage trousers, his look completed with some bookish glasses. Ajax and Thersites changed out of these standard uniforms later on into distinctive outfits.
Joe Dixon’s Achilles was indeed puffed up with self regard. He looked strong as he strutted around bare-chested, flexing a bicep when his name was mentioned. Ulysses fondled Achilles a little too enthusiastically when talking of his sinew. Ulysses read from his notebook as Achilles and Patroclus (Clifford Samuel) acted out his verbal account of their lampooning.
The parts of Nestor and Patroclus were doubled so that the actor was effectively doing an impression of his performance in the other role.
The entry of the Trojan Aeneas to bring Hector’s challenge saw the Greeks go into a formation, stamping their feet to punctuate their lines without looking at the arrival. In a show of bravado they all answered in chorus, with Agamemnon eventually coming forward to speak with him individually.
The conspiracy of Ulysses and Nestor to bring Achilles to heel by arranging for Ajax (Aidan Kelly) to answer the challenge was engagingly presented.
Thersites (Zubin Varla) was a Lily Savage style character, similar to that seen in Cheek By Jowl’s production, but this one was in a wheelchair, kneeling as if legless (2.1). His chair sported a pair of comedy breasts slung at the back and a hand-held microphone slotted into a stand on the arm.
Ajax wore a muscle body suit, had long straggly hair and red-tinted glasses, making him very reminiscent of Mickey Rourke’s wrestler. His body suit had tattoos including his name in Greek; the words “I’m awesome” and a Nike swoosh with Greek writing underneath in a nod to the goddess of victory. He moved around as if mid-bout in a series of standardised moves.
In another simplification, Thersites’ reference to “brach” became “bitch”. Annoyed by Thersites’ refusal to tell him about the proclamation, Ajax lifted the fool out of his chair and threw him to the ground, but he was subsequently replaced in it by Achilles.
The revolve switched back to the Trojan set again as Cassandra (Jibz Cameron) crawled out from the tipi to deliver her prophecies of doom (2.2). The oddness of her monotone delivery accentuated the strangeness of her warnings.
The Trojans passed round a peace pipe and discussed whether to keep Helen. Everyone was relieved when Hector came round to Troilus’ opinion and agreed that she should stay.
Bitter Thersites reared out of his seat wishing the bone-ache on the whole camp (2.3). His lines were altered so that his reference to “war for a placket” became for “the slit”.
A curtain in front of a hospital trolley represented Achilles tent, near which Patroclus stood in gold high heels. Thersites went into the tent and sat reading the Penguin Classic edition of Homer’s Iliad.
Annoyed with the continuing insolence, Agamemnon brought Patroclus to heel, hooking his neck with an umbrella. Patroclus exited at the back of the set to return from the walkway as Nestor, which was a great switch.
Ulysses showed himself to be a consummate actor when stoking Ajax’s sense of self worth, convincing him that it was below his dignity to go to Achilles rather than have Achilles come to him.
The scene ended with Agamemnon drawing lots from a hat with Ajax the winner and thus the candidate to fight Hector.
In Priam’s (Bruce Odland) palace musicians played “Love, love, nothing but love” with added line “All you need is love” as Pandarus had a comic exchange with the Servant (3.1). This sequence allowed for Scott Handy to change costume to emerge as Helen.
But when he emerged as the slightly frumpy looking object of Paris’ (Gary Wilmes) attention, the whole scenario looked odd. However, the re-emergence of Scott Handy after this interlude pointed towards the intriguing possibility that this might have been deliberately inserted because Helen was originally doubled with one of the Greek officers.
Paris and Helen hugged when he insisted that she should help him to disarm Hector (Ari Fliakos).
The time came for boy and girl to meet. Troilus speech in expectation of seeing Cressida (3.2) provided another instance of the play’s exotically beautiful language being complemented by the ‘noble savagery’ of the Trojans.
When Cressida appeared before Troilus, she wore a small veil. She turned away as indicated in text and the “billing” saw her rub her noses with her love.
The world of love works by its own rules. As if to bring this out, this sequence saw Troilus and Cressida coordinate their movements with monitor images to a strikingly obvious extent.
They struck blows at each other in time with a red flash that appeared on screen as they assiduously copied the film. They fell to ground as if shocked by electricity, not for any textual reason, but solely in imitation of the video sequence on the monitor.
More naturalistically, Cressida rested her head on Troilus’ chest as per a clip from a post-war Hollywood movie.
The Americans’ trademark technique reached epic heights of absurdity in a sequence in which Troilus and Cressida began by hugging; she then knelt before him as he put his hands around her neck as if strangling her, after which they lay on the ground. These actions had no relation to the dialogue and were all copied from the film displayed on the monitors.
One possible explanation for this bizarre sequence is that it coincided with a moment of intense emotion in the play and was designed to emphasise its significance.
Troilus carried Cressida away without kissing her as they went off to bed, at which point the interval came.
The Greeks entered and the revolve turned back to the mirror at the start of the second half (3.3). Calchas (Scott Shepherd again) wore an all-encompassing foam suit to request the prisoner swap that would return his daughter Cressida to him.
Agamemnon changed into an Australian Diomedes by deftly swapping hats. The choice of an Australian accent for this lusty character played on an ocker stereotype.
This doubling was overtly theatrical. It was fun, cheeky and put attention back on the language as the hat change character swap underscored the unrealistic nature of what we were seeing, rather like a pause at a poetry reading when the page is turned.
Notifying the intended swap to the Trojans, Diomedes’ lascivious intentions towards Cressida irritated Troilus.
The Greek commanders went to work on Achilles trying to manipulate him out of his sulk. He seemed flattered at first, and proud, because he assumed that the general had come to speak with him. But Agamemnon paused when saying “What says… Achilles” as if having to be reminded of his name.
When Achilles realised that he was being slighted, he began to cry “What, am I poor of late?” He pointed at Patroclus when talking of “beauty born in the face”. And his reference to a woman’s longing to see Hector was made explicit when he finally met him.
Ulysses engaged Achilles with an intellectual intensity that indicated that he thought the soldier incapable of seeing through his ruse. But Achilles was unmoved. There was some light relief when Patroclus and Thersites mimicked Ajax.
The handover of Cressida to the Greeks saw Diomedes and Aeneas wrestle each other by placing a thumb in the mouth of their opponent (4.1). This fitted with their talk of future conflict beyond the present truce. Diomedes dispraised Helen saying “She’s bitter to her cunt-try”. Paris waved a charm in front of Diomedes’ face to ward off his trickery.
Cressida and Troilus appeared briefly before stealing off into the tent where they kissed (4.2). Aeneas called and Pandarus tried to send him away, but he eventually gained admittance.
Cressida was upset to hear that she had to leave. She picked up Troilus’ boots and carried them, walking in a circle, then put them on and walked in them awkwardly. She knelt and scratched her thighs, which bore marks as if she had habitually injured herself in that way.
The brief scene 4.3 was cut, so that the action continued with the young couple exchanging love tokens (4.4). Troilus and Cressida swapped a sleeve and a glove, which were transferred to the other’s arm by linking them and pulling the items across in one go. This emphasised the unbreakable connection between them. The lascivious Diomedes collected Cressida.
On the day of the combat, Ajax was wheeled in standing on a trolley to the sound of rock music (4.5). He played guitar rather than the event being heralded by trumpets.
Cressida was brought in and was immediately noticed. The Greeks did not physically kiss her or touch her, instead their attention to her was symbolised. They brought their arms together sharply at the wrists as they stamped, a display that emphasised the martial force of their attraction.
Cressida took off her native dress onstage and replaced it with a Greek dress in a brief moment of partial nudity. Menelaus tried his luck and puckered up, but Cressida refused. Ulysses spoke to Cressida with his back turned and was rebuffed.
Hector and Ajax wrestled but the Trojan refused to finish off Ajax as they were related. At this point Achilles burst in wearing a red dress saying he had “fed mine eyes on thee…” Achilles responded dramatically to Hector, preening as he told him to “Behold thy fill”. Achilles’ promise to destroy Hector “there, or there, or there” ended with rude suggestion.
During the evening’s festivities, Troilus asked Ulysses to help him find Cressida.
Thersites gave a letter to Achilles and then started railing as Achilles withdrew to read the letter, which he tore up in despair because it had reminded him of his promise not to fight (5.1).
Ulysses escorted Troilus to see Cressida (5.2) and the two men positioned themselves stage left to observe. Thersites sat upstage in his chair. Cressida appeared stage right with Diomedes and vacillated as she was tempted by the Greek.
Troilus grew ever more despondent as his love’s lack of constancy became apparent. Thersites provided a cynical commentary on events punctuated with interjections such as “Fry, lechery, fry”.
Cressida gave Diomedes the sleeve gifted to her by Troilus. She immediately changed her mind and took it back, but this retrieval was yet another of Cressida’s strangely absent and dispassionate moments. The line “Nay do not snatch it from me” was given to Cressida, so that she spoke it with resignation after Diomedes had taken the sleeve once again.
Her wonderful parting speech “Troilus farewell” was full of emptiness. Drained of all happiness, she lay down on the ground. Troilus moved upstage of her and mirrored her posture.
After she left, Troilus came forward and lay on exactly the same spot she had occupied in precisely the same pose. His words “Was Cressid here?” became one of the great moments of the performance. So desperate was Troilus to be at one with his lost love, that he tried to occupy the space she had just vacated, as if that spot retained some aura with which it was possible to communicate. He attempted this almost physical unity with Cressida in the face of overwhelming evidence of her emotional absence. This was and was not Cressid.
Troilus used a knife to start cutting up the glove Cressida had given him. Ulysses tried to stop him. But Troilus continued stabbing at the glove, crying “False, false, false!”
His anguished speech was peppered with references to the gods of classical mythology. The exoticism of these invocations was accentuated by them emanating from a Native American.
Thersites summarised the action with his incredibly cynical “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery”.
Hector’s household was represented by the tipi outside which an Asian Andromache (Jennifer Lim) stood with a papoose (5.3). Hector ignored all the warnings of his prophetic sister Cassandra, his wife and Priam. Pandarus brought Cressida’s letter to Troilus, which he tore up and scattered.
The start of the battle was described by Thersites, and we soon saw a melee of cricket bats and lacrosse sticks (5.4). Hector challenged Thersites, who took off his wig to prove himself an unworthy opponent.
The Greeks carried in the dead Patroclus who was still holding his fan (5.5). The doubling of this character with Nestor then obliged the actor to switch into that character to bemoan Patroclus’ death. This deliberately played with the concept of identity echoing the sentiment expressed previously by Troilus about Cressida: this was and was not Nestor.
Patroclus’ blood was collected in a helmet into which Achilles and Ajax dipped their hands before smearing the blood on their faces swearing revenge.
The battle continued with the combat between Hector and Achilles coming to a non-contact stand-off with Achilles vowing to fight him when refreshed (5.6).
The Myrmidons, dressed in white boiler suits and masks, were dispatched by Achilles to find Hector (5.7). The end of this brief scene was spoilt slightly during the Stratford run. Thersites rose from his wheelchair after declaring himself a bastard, stripped naked and pushed the chair offstage. This gratuitous nudity was incredible silly was quite rightly was dropped for the Riverside run.
Hector lay down a captured piece of Greek armour (5.8). The Myrmidons surrounded him and he slumped dead. His assailants carried him away in this fixed slouched position. This was changed at the Riverside so that he simply walked off after lying dead on the ground.
News of Hector’s death reached the rest of the Trojans (5.9). After this, Troilus declared that all was lost, but fought on. The final sour note was struck by Pandarus who bequeathed us his diseases (5.10).
Bold theatrical experiments are always welcome. This particular experiment worked well enough but was an acquired taste.
The distinct and puzzling performance style of The Wooster Group did not come at the expense of clarity. The text was perfectly comprehensible and at no point was the action of their sequences incomprehensible.
Actors take direction. What appears to be spontaneous movement is rehearsed and subject to minute control by a director.
The fact that the Trojans mimicked the movements of actors in projected film sequences merely made clearer this hidden aspect of the process. The guts of the production were displayed on the outside.
Paradoxically, the more intriguing aspects of the production was so disconcerting that they almost cancelled themselves out, leaving the audience to focus more specifically on the text, which was the only feature of some sequences that could be readily processed.
This was and was not Troilus and Cressida.
Only 76 walk outs during last night's first preview of our RSC/Wooster Group Troilus and Cressida. Are we being radical enough?—
Mark Ravenhill (@markravenhill) August 04, 2012
85 walkouts during tonight's troilus and Cressida. Cast called back to the stage for more applause by 300 remaining.—
Mark Ravenhill (@markravenhill) August 04, 2012
Superlatives! MT: @LearnedNinjaEel Saw the most offensive theatre performance. Troilus & Cressida painfully amateur & shockingly offensive—
(@TheWoosterGroup) August 13, 2012