Dreaming Troilus and Cressida (The Swan and RST August 2012)

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, worlds mirror each other, and sometimes we are not sure if we are dreaming or in the real (play) world.  For some the play world is a fantasy for seething brains!  Watching both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Troilus and Cressida in the Swan at the RSC last week, I felt that I should be watching mirrored worlds enacted on stage, but I was unsure where I was and how I was to read the productions. Both were very different  productions, which had their own merits, but in their different ways made me feel like my brain was ‘seething’ as I watched the performances and later after I thought about them, and tried to make sense of the productions.

I had read/heard that many audience members had walked out of Troilus and Cressida at the interval and I had seen some of the reviews. I realised that going to see it myself would be an interesting experience, but nothing really prepared me for how I would feel at the end when I saw it myself.

Troilus and Cressida was a collaboration between the Wooster Group and the RSC.  The production  jangled and jarred as well as being challenging and exciting.  The Trojans were played by the Wooster group and the Greeks by the RSC. Both sides had rehearsed separately and then had come together just before the opening.  The fusing together of two very different styles ground against each other like the screech of chalk across a blackboard  to produce something  that was both mesmeric and embarrassing at the same time.  The mirrored back of stage which turned as each side came on stage set attempted to give the impression that we might be stepping through the mirror to see two worlds reflecting each other. However, I think the shock of this production was that much of the time this didn’t happen. What was exciting was the unexpected, as much as it was frustrating and deeply annoying.

As our expectations were set up, we were frustrated in that these weren’t delivered, and that was uncomfortable, but it was kind of like a jolt as well. The strangeness of what I saw was what was interesting, and that what I saw was nothing that I could expect or consider as an interpretation of the text before I got there.  The production played  totally against finding meaning in the text, and that was uncomfortable, but being challenged and uncomfortable isn’t always a bad thing.  The Trojans were wired up and as they spoke, footage of old hollywood films and Eskimos was projected on four screens on the corners of the thrust stage.  As I started to pay attention to the screens, I realised that the images were mirrored on the screens, and that the action on-screen appeared to the action on stage.  This was a use of multimedia at times seemed pointless, and a distraction, because it was so obvious that what we sere seeing was commenting on the action. However, it  also drew attention to the fact that this was a text which referenced other texts (eg Homer), just as this was a production was referencing film and the company’s video blogs.  It was a reminder that in the play itself characters can’t necessarily make sense of what they see in front of them because what they see seems obvious, but might have other connotations that are not so obvious.  What does Troilus see when he watches Cressida with  Diomedes?  The microphones used by the Wooster Group made the actors’ voices sound dull and flat, but at times it was a haunting sound that was hard for my ear to tune into so I had to try to listen more to really hear what was being said.  In many ways, the Wooster group actors conveyed a lack of  emotion in the way they spoke and this gave a view of the relationships between Troilus and Cressida/Pandarus and Cressida  lacked commitment.  There was a strange vulnerability about the Trojans, which was emphasised by a  contradiction in seeing what was the representation an ancient civilisation, but surrounded by technology that was far from enabling.

The RSC Greeks, in contrast, spoke the verse clearly and without the aid of microphones, but their approach was far from traditional. Joe Dixon played Achilles in such a way his vanity and his pride were were being exhibited as if he was peevish and prone to tantrums. He had the physical appearance of solider, but tried to undermine this by faking illness and at one point wearing a red dress, both these images could be read as the antithesis to the great warrior he is supposed to be.  In contract, to Ajax (Aidan Kelly) in the body suit both mocked his physic, and also reminded me constantly this was a drama with actors playing parts. This was not so far away from the 2009 RSC Julius Caesar where the actors wore flesh coloured body stockings, and we weren’t supposed to have noticed them.  There was some interesting doubling from Danny Webb as Agamemnon and Diomedes. However, actors do double and this relies on the audience forgetting that the actor has just played another character. In many ways this doubling seemed a little absurd.  However, in the current RSC production of Richard III a brother doubles as his brother’s murderer – doubling can be absurd anyway, when it’s not meant to be!  As an audience, we have to try to believe that the actor is playing the character he is playing at a particular point in the play. As an audience we need to buy into the illusion that is happening before us, and this production made that hard for us, as it constantly reminded us that this was a play, and a performance and we had to do much of the work. At times there was something of the TV series MASH being evoked by the RSC Greek world, but in many ways the production took the dark ironic humour of MASH and made it even darker and nightmarish to the point that as an audience member it became uncomfortable to watch. Zubin Varla played as Thersites beautifully to fit into this tone.

The Dream from the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory was so very different from Troilus and Cressida, but it was as unexpected. It was so well crafted and wonderfully funny.  The focus is on the mechanical’s play and s the audience enter the auditorium, the seats have dust cloths across them and the stage is covered in plastic to indicate work taking place.  A mixture of excellent comic acting, circus acts, and mime made this show very entertaining.  The references to the theatre itself were intriguing and the response to the audience in the production was as interesting as the mechanicals putting on their play.

This is the second RSC show this season that I’ve been soaked at.  Next time, I think I’ll take my own towel with me!

The difference between the Russian Dream and the Wooster Group/RSC Troilus and Cressida was that the Russian company worked hard to involve the audience and bring us on side. The challenge of the Swan production was that the production didn’t feel like it responded to the audience, and we had to work hard to comprehend what we saw. Both the Dream and Troilus constantly reminded me, I was in a theatre, and that I was watching theatre. I tried to make sense of what I was seeing and that has made me think about the two productions more than I would if I’d seen a good ‘traditional’ production of the plays. For example, I can remember little of the Globe 2009 production of Troilus and Cressida, but I have a feeling that the Wooster/RSC version will stay with me for some time – for both good and bad reasons.

Reviews and Previews

Storify page

Coriolan/us; Troilus and Cressida – review | Culture | The Observer

Michael Billington on experimental Shakespeare | Culture | The Guardian

Troilus and Cressidea, Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon Hysteria, Theatre Royal, Bath Heartbreak House, Festival Theatre, Chichester – Reviews – Theatre & Dance – The Independent

Troilus and Cressida – review | Stage | The Guardian

Stratford Herald

What other bloggers are saying

Partially Obstructed View: Theatre review: Troilus and Cressida (RSC & Wooster Group / Swan & Riverside Studios)The Stage / Reviews / Troilus and Cressida

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2 thoughts on “Dreaming Troilus and Cressida (The Swan and RST August 2012)

  1. I have just read your review and quite frankly you have no future as a theatre reviewer in England. This piece is well written, thoughtful, incisive and intelligent, you write about the shows and not yourself and your terribly important opinions and agenda. If you want a career in theatre criticism, you are going to have to leave the country and leave it to the hacks currently employed.
    I necver mind criticism of a show I have been involved with if the writing is good


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