TROILUS AND CRESSIDA
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 6th August, 2012
On arrival in the Swan auditorium, you can’t fail to notice there’s a wigwam on stage. Interesting, you might think; you don’t expect tepees in a play about the Trojan War. But then you think, the besiegers of the ancient city spent year after year in tents.
But this is not the Greek encampment. This is Troy itself. In a curious blend of Native American tradition and modern day materials, the Trojans open the play. Sometimes, with Shakespeare, it can take your ear a few minutes to attune to the language, so I wasn’t too put off when I couldn’t follow the opening few lines – but then I found I wasn’t picking it up at all. For one thing, the actors were all mic’d up – you can’t tell who is speaking, which is a barrier to understanding. They also speak in a sort of atonal rhythm, which I assume is meant to recreate the patterns of the Apache tongue, but unfortunately, this monotonous delivery mangles the Shakespearean verse out of all recognition and mugs it of all meaning. They recite rather than act the lines. Precedence is given to the rhythm rather than the sense – they may as well have been infants in school reciting their times tables. Then, all of a sudden, they burst into chants about John Wayne and his false teeth. Ok…
There are video screens, playing scenes of Inuit and other ethnic groups, but the screens are too small to be watched properly and therefore add nothing to the production. In fact, if you try to watch them, you are distracted from the confusing action on the stage. I found it very easy to disregard them. Utterly pointless. Just another idea thrown into the pot.
Things pick up, momentarily, when the action shifts to the Greeks. How will they be represented, I wondered? Perhaps as the cavalry. Perhaps we were going to have a Little Big Horn kind of affair.
No. Not even a game of Cowboys and Indians.
The Greeks are in contemporary military gear, pale and faded desert uniforms, army boots and jaunty purple berets. Tellingly, these actors are not mic’d up. They project their voices and give some life to the language. The arrival of Ulysses (the wonderful Scott Handy) is a breath of fresh air, but then he is made to fake a choking fit and puff on an inhaler. It’s not funny. Many other heavy-handed attempts at humour follow – I only laughed once: when mighty Achilles fell off his hospital trolley bed and the cast scrambled to pick him up. I’m not sure this was meant to happen. They should keep it in.
This is a co-production between the RSC and an American company, the Wooster Group. Directed by Mark Ravenhill and Elizabeth LeCompte, two individuals who like the couple in a weather vane, I suspect have never met or interacted. Imagine Little Big Man directed by David Lynch and Pee Wee Herman. The different approaches clash horribly – and it’s not just a ‘clever’ way of representing the opposing sides in the conflict. This is more like keeping the audience under siege with an onslaught of ideas that don’t come off. After the interval there were quite a few empty seats as people took the opportunity to escape.
Scott Shepherd’s Troilus is very hard on the ear. I wonder if Stephen Hawking was his vocal coach. Just as tiresome is Marin Ireland as his paramour Cressida. (They are tepees in a pod! Hah!) She is a walking, talking alienation effect, playing most of her scenes like an animatronic Lady Macbeth sleepwalking. She runs around in circles while others try to have a conversation with her, an hyperactive child with all sorts of attention disorders.
Mighty Hector (the diminutive Ari Fliakos) has hints of Bob Dylan in his delivery and a stunning mullet Joe Dirt would be proud to sport. He’s another one given to running around in circles. The woman to my right leaned towards me and murmured, “It’s like watching The Hobbit.” Cruel, I thought, but fair.
Agamemnon (Danny Webb) spends the second half disguised as Crocodile Dundee. Achilles (Joe Dixon) doffs his white bath towel in favour of a full-length, blood red evening gown. Ajax (Aidan Kelly) poses as postures in a padded body suit, part time WWF wrestler, and part time heavy metal rocker. It is all rather embarrassing. Someone has watched Derek Jarman’s The Tempest too many times.
I became punch drunk. By the time Andromache (Jennifer Lim) appeared to plead with her little husband not to fight, dragging the campfire behind her, I was on the verge of hysterics. “Mad cousin Cassandra” appears but is no less or no more comprehensible than the rest of the tribe. A bit of distortion on her mic does not a visionary make.
And still the thing showed no sign of ending. At three and a half hours it felt like the Trojan War itself would have been a lot easier to sit through. Experimental approaches are all well and good but I felt this one overran by about 180 minutes. It outstayed its welcome very quickly, a nonsensical mishmash of ideas, techniques and approaches that denies the play its meaning and its poetry.
As the audience filed out, I heard comments like “That’s three and a half hours I won’t get back” and quite a few expletives. I’m not against new approaches (companies like Kneehigh, Propeller and Oddsocks manage to stamp their own identity on a play without killing it) but there needs to be some kind of editing process and quality control so that the whole exercise is not just a self-indulgent project for the companies involved. This production would, I feel, have been better directed by sat-nav.