Thursday, August 9, 2012

Brace Yourself for Troilus and Cressida

Last night’s RSC performance of Troilus and Cressida left me feeling bewildered, confused, and slightly foolish. The prospect of New York’s Wooster Group coming together with the RSC seemed exciting. The experimental project, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte (of NY) and Mark Ravenhill (of the RSC), brought Rupert Goold’s original conception to fruition. Yet, somehow I wonder if this is the sort of theatre even the controversial Goold would stand behind.

The production highlights the juxtaposition of Greek and Trojan cultures, bring the Trojans to life as war torn Native Americans.  The Wooster group attempted to theatrically embody the ritualized and stereotyped Native American culture. While I do not agree with all of their choices (I will explain this later) I do want to bring attention to some of the critical receptions of the play - some of which have  bashed The Wooster Group for all of the wrong reasons.

Michael Billington of The Gaurdian wrote:
“Many past productions have highlighted the differences between the chivalric Trojans and the pragmatic Greeks. That is pushed to the limit here with LeCompte's actors all wired for sound, presenting the Trojans as beseiged Native Americans. Politically, there is something questionable about modern white Americans appropriating past tribal customs; and, however authentic the war cries and dances, the actors can't help resembling extras in a Bob Hope western.”
I would just like to say to Mr. Billington that this is exactly the point.  What audiences are failing to recognize is that The Wooster Group was less authentic in their interpretation of Native Americans and more stereotypical of the Hollywood ideal.  This was expressed with the multiple television screens which showed clips of Native American films throughout the performance which the actors mimicked. As for the decision to provide the actors with microphones, we only can speculate. Perhaps the Wooster group, as Billington suggests, were unable to successfully fill the theatre with their voices and therefore were placed on microphones to project their voices. However, there was quite a bit of live music during their section, which would have been virtually impossible to project over; and furthermore, the moments that were occupied by silence and the lone actor were all the more eerie because of the echoing effect – reminiscent of the echo across the empty plain.  But maybe that is too generous.
What I did have a major problem with was the performances of the Troilus and Cressida – both being far too concerned with their exact replication of the video replay on the television screens then with the text itself. Scott Shepherd (Troilus) and Marin Ireland (Cressida) both gave a flat performance, devoid of meaning. Most importantly they forgot to tell the story! I complete agree with Billington that “this production… is that it does nothing to enhance our understanding of the play.”
On the flip side, if you can call it that, the Greeks show stronger stamina in camouflage as modern day soldiers. They certainly appear the stronger actors, not reliant on microphones and elaborate stylization.  Joe Dixon comes to the stage with the right amount of flare and energy, presenting the opposite of our imaginings of the heroic Achiles. Zubin Varla delivers Thersites's narrative commentary in a wheelchair and dressed as a transvestite. Of these, only Scott Handy as Ulysses delivers an intelligent performance representative of the RSC. This is yet another example of the RSC trying to push the boundaries, but falling short.
The major problem of the play was its lack of reliability – an alienation effect that was probably semi-intentional. Nearly half of the audience walked out during the performance. This was a failure on the audience’s part to accept art, in a crowd heavily reliant on “traditional” and “authentic” Shakespeare. However, there was also a failure on this productions ability to effectively tell the story – an element fundamental to the enjoyment of a performance. My recomendation is to embrace experimental theatre, however hard it may seem.

Read more at The Gaurdian and The Telegraph.

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