This collaboration between the RSC and New York’s experimental Wooster Group got badly mauled when it was unveiled in Stratford a month ago.
Approaching it for the first time during this short London run at the Riverside Studios, I’d hoped that I’d be able to find reasons for declaring it unjustly maligned. I had, after all, flagged up this version of Shakespeare’s systematically cynical and anti-heroic take on the Trojan War as potentially one of the most thought-provoking contributions to the World Shakespeare Festival.
The production sets out to heighten the sense of a cultural clash between the Trojans and the pragmatic Greeks through the collision of styles between two companies who were rehearsed separately by separate directors – the Wooster Group by Elizabeth LeCompte, the RSC by playwright-in-residence, Mark Ravenhill.
It’s a bright idea that fails, however, to ignite in practice. Instead, a deadening air of self-conscious disjointedness hangs over the proceedings. This is particularly the case in the scenes with the Trojans who are played by the Wooster actors as Native Americans – or, perhaps, as parodies of white cinematic impersonations of Native Americans. Either way, the appropriation feels embarrassing to no deep purpose – and raises the awkward question of why the siege against the RSC ‘s Greeks, bristling in their contemporary battle fatigues, has lasted so long.
The Wooster Group’s trademark interweaving of text and technology succeeds in sucking all the life out these episodes. The actors’ miked voices have a flattened Stephen Hawking-like quality. Deliberately eschewing spontaneity, the Trojan characters stare at TV monitors and precisely copy the actions of characters in film footage of an ancient Inuit saga or Splendour in the Grass, a 1961 movie with Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. There are, indeed, various kinds of ironic distancing in the play but the distraction of this mimicking of fictional precedent is one of several steps too far.
It’s a relief to listen to the RSC actors; the superb verse-speaking of Scott Handy thrillingly highlights the rhetorical deviousness of Ulysses. And there’s an energy to the flamboyant humour that turns Zubin Varla’s scabrous commentator, Thersites, into a wheelchair-bound Northern transvestite and has Joe Dixon’s pouting, lazy Achilles paraded round on a hospital trolley, clad in only a towel and a few tattoos. You get little idea, though, of the intellectual scale of Troilus and Cressida, a work which here becomes a mass of alienation effects in search of a play.
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