Is a problem play shared a problem play solved? Storied New York experimentalists The Wooster Group and our very own RSC put that proposition to the test with this wilfully nutsoid take on Shakespeare's Trojan War-set sort-of-tragedy.
With The Wooster Group taking the Trojans and the RSC baggsying the invading Greeks, each company worked upon their portions of the play separately, with their own directors: Elizabeth LeCompte for the Yanks, Mark Ravenhill for the Brits. The two camps only came together a fortnight before 'Troilus and Cressida' opened in Stratford-upon-Avon; the resultant production is about as peculiar as you'd imagine.
Inevitably the oddest stuff comes from The Wooster Group, which has opted to play the Trojans as a posse of psychedelic Native Americans, talking through head mics in weird monotones, declaiming Shakespeare's words with all the rhetorical fervour of sleepy koalas.
Shakespeare's lines are secondary to The Wooster Group's vision, and their depiction of the strangely unresolved courtship between Scott Shepherd's Troilus and Marin Ireland's Cressida is undeniably sloggy in places – audience walkouts have reportedly been a nightly fixture.
Yet this faintly absurd but sympathetically realised portrait of a placid, natural people contrasts effectively with the RSC's Greeks. Ravenhill's half of the show depicts Agamemnon's forces as an advanced but exhausted civilisation, jaded and depraved.
The show is pretty much stolen by the superb Joe Dixon's beefy bully-boy of an Achilles, who lounges around in nothing but a towel and tattoos, too distracted by his overweening ego and his lover Patroclus to bother with the war effort. And he's positively straight-laced next to Zubin Varla's dragged-up, pretend quadriplegic Thersites, or Aidan Kelly's Ajax, who stomps around in a puffy wrestling outfit.
Cartoonish and even crude by the RSC's usual standards, next to The Wooster Group's wanton primitivism Ravenhill's Greeks do feel refined. While they remain discreet from each other, the two camps successfully reformat 'Troilus and Cressida' into a playful post-colonial, clash-of-the-civilisations satire.
When they start sharing scenes, it doesn't really work: there is little psychological common ground between the two companies and few of the actual details of the conflict – Hector's kinship with Ajax, Achilles' slaughter of Hector – make sense in the context of this production.
It's a bit of a mess. But then, that was surely always the plan, and if you like your Shakespeare served a bit bonkers there is much to enjoy. Neither side solves this problem play, but they do have fun trying.
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I saw this at the Swan and was apprehensive because of the bad reviews. I was surprised that it has had such a bad reaction, yes it is challenging, bizarre and surreal but I appreciated the opportunity to experience something completely different. Yes there were walkouts at the interval, but I returned and commented to the lady beside me "It;s not that bad is it?" She agreed with me. The post interval audience were fully engaged with the production and warmly appauded the cast at the end. Basically you will either like or loath it. For me it is not the worse thing I have seen at the RSC. It is certainly the most extraordinary production though.