Is Troilus And Cressida as bad as everyone says?

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Troilus And Cressida

If some of the reviews are to believed, and if the number of walk-outs is an indication, the RSC/Wooster Group’s collaboration on Troilus And Cressida is pretty bad. In his two star review in The Guardian Michael Billington called it a ‘bizarrely disjointed spectacle [which] does nothing to enhance our understanding of the play’, Heather Neill in The Stage called it ‘a mess’ which fails to present ‘a realistic exploration of human relationships’ and Simon Tavener at said it’s ‘one of the worst pieces of theatre I have seen on the professional stage…I have never heard Shakespeare spoken so badly’.

The RSC has fielded a strong cast and The Wooster Group actors include the Tony Award-winning Marin Ireland and Scott Shepherd of recent Gatz fame so if they wanted to enhance our understanding of the play, present human relations realistically and speak the verse well I think you can assume they would have done so but they chose to do something else instead. Let’s look at those objections again.

Objection No. 1. ‘It does nothing to enhance our understanding of the play’ (The Guardian). In a conventional production, Shakespeare is the artist and the actors and director are interpreters who stand between the play and the audience, like teachers in front of a class, explaining what it all means. But The Wooster Group has its roots in the New York performance art scene and for Elizabeth LeCompte, director of The Wooster Group, her production is not a medium to explain Shakespeare’s written text, it is an original work in its own right. The production is a response to, not an illustration of, Shakespeare’s play and not only is she not going to explain Shakespeare’s work, she’s not going to explain hers either. As she said, perhaps a little disingenuously, in The New Yorker in 2007, ‘I am not an intellectual. I am not trying to mean anything—I’m trying to have a good time’ so complaining that the production doesn’t explain Shakespeare’s text is like complaining that an abstract painting isn’t more figurative, that’s not what they did and they wouldn’t if they could.

Objection No. 2. It doesn’t show ‘a realistic exploration of human relationships’  (The Stage). Realist drama was a 19th century invention; it wasn’t the tradition Shakespeare wrote and performed in and a century of modern dramatists, from Ionesco and Brecht via Beckett to Sarah Kane and Martin Crimp, have rejected it. In his Twitter feed, Mark Ravenhill, who directed the RSC actors, describes the show as a ‘post-postmodern mash-up of a cubist play’ and LeCompte said, ‘When I direct, it’s not natural; it’s a performance’ so no, it’s not realistic, but in a good way.

Objection No. 3. ‘I have never heard Shakespeare spoken so badly’ ( LeCompte has the greatest respect for words but little interest in the characters who say them, as she said of The Wooster Group’s Hamletwhich also prompted walkouts during its run, ‘it’s not the character; it’s the language; it’s the words that hold everything together.’ If you start from the premise that it’s not the actors’ job to tell the audience what to think or feel then the actors should deliver their lines with minimal inflection to give us the clearest experience of Shakespeare’s words, which is what they do.

If you look at what Troilus And Cressida is, instead of beating it up for what it never set out to be in the first place, it’s fascinating. Shakespeare’s play is a product of many sources; the siege of Troy, which probably didn’t happen, as told by Homer, who probably didn’t exist, partly translated but largely invented by George Chapman, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, with a heavy overlay of Elizabethan references. The RSC/Wooster Group production is a playful, theatrical and thoughtful response to exhaustive research, as documented in The Wooster Group’s daily video diaries, which matches Shakespeare in its eclectic collage of  sources, contemporary references and conflicting styles and conventions. The Greeks’ bodies are modified by circumstance or choice, sporting an array of war wounds, tattoos, dresses and wigs, while the Trojans are wrapped in, or bursting out of, Greek statuary skins and wearing unconvincing Red Indian wigs on some of the palest actors you’ve ever seen. The Trojans’ spirit voices speak to them via their earpieces and give them different instructions every night, which must keep the RSC actors on their toes, and Scott Shepherd and Marin Ireland act out Troilus And Cressida’s love scene as Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in Splendour In The Grass ­– come on, that’s funny!

I’ve no idea where the Trojans’ little hops before they exit came from – they reminded me of skedaddling Hanna Barbera cartoon characters but if it was inspired by something more boring then I’m happy to stick with my version. As Mark Ravenhill recently tweeted, it doesn’t do to over-think a Wooster Group show, ‘My advice would be: don’t fathom, just allow them to be. Fathoming doesn’t work on them there Woosters.’


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Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England
  • Pingback: Dreaming Troilus and Cressida (The Swan and RST August 2012) | between the acts()

  • Andrew Cowie

    Hi Greg, thanks for joining the conversation and I’m sorry I didn’t pick up your comment sooner. You’re not kidding when you say, ‘passions and opinions about the man and his words run deep’ – you should read the replies to the authorship blogs! I teach The Wooster Group to my undergraduate students so to have them playing down the road in Stratford was impossibly glamorous and exciting and for them to collaborate with the custodians of our cultural heritage, the RSC, was as thrilling to fans like me as it was baffling to many of the RSC’s traditional audience.

  • gregp

    Well I’m chiming in 9 months after the fact, but I just stumbled upon this blog and really enjoyed it. What a wonderful lively conversation. You are much more generous with each other than many bloggers in argument. Andrew, thanks for championing my favorite theater company in human history. I’m sorry that many didn’t take more from the production. I haven’t seen Troilus and Cressida yet so I can’t speak directly to anyone’s complaints. But, as a native New Yorker, and someone who has attended the work of The Wooster Group for more than two decades, I have to protest the idea that these folks don’t know what they’re doing, and agree with you, Andrew, that it’s more likely that they’re just not doing what some think that they should be. Their production of “Poor Theater” – which was decried here in the states by many Grotowski purists (an irony in it’s own right), was a stunning display of physical, vocal, and technical virtuosity. Regardless of whether you like they’re choices or not, that’s what they are – choices. TWG has a deeply disciplined artistic rigor and a theatrical lineage that gives them a lot of choice, I assure you. In general, as Andrew observes, TWG does not “stage a play”, but rather creates original work that often includes a root text as an element. It may have been unfortunate for many that the root text for your introduction to TWG was Shakespeare. I know that passions and opinions about the man and his words run deep. Obviously if serious irreverence, a certain amount of chaos, and sheer theatrical play are not your cup of tea, then TWG is not for you. But for those of you who contend that you’re open to that kind of thing, but didn’t like this particular piece, I hope you will have another opportunity to see TWG in all their unseemly glory. I think both RSC and TWG should be congratulated each for stretching itself in the other’s direction.

  • Pingback: Dreaming Troilus and Cressida (The Swan and RST August 2012) | between the acts()

  • Andrew

    Welcome to the conversation Theatreyellowtiger! I suspect we all find that Shakespeare performance, like correct English usage, was at its best in our youth and everything since then represents a decline in standards. But don’t forget, those people you thought were doing it right when you discovered Shakespeare were considered horribly modern by the preceding generation. The Gielgud fans hated Olivier’s verse-speaking in the 1935 Romeo And Juliet and every generation since then has made the plays less patrician and more demotic so I think we have to accept that if anyone is going to still be performing Shakespeare in the future they will remake his plays and find in them what interests them just as previous generations have done, and annoying the oldsters is all part of the fun!

  • Theatreyellowtiger

    Just another in a long line of dreadful productions mounted by the RSC under the directorship of Michael Boyd. Modern, modern, modern – because denim and flak jackets speak to the modern audience. Swing the actors in, let them mumble.
    Where is the magic, the wonder, the beauty of the language?
    Greg Doran, I hope, is a better futre.

  • Pingback: Emptying the stage: experimenting with Shakespeare | The Shakespeare blog()

  • mdoness

    Thanks Andrew, the Gardner article makes interesting reading – I don’t generally follow the debates and reviews so it’s good to see that others think RSC could be braver.
    It’s a tough call for them, in Stratford – perhaps different when in the lively competition of London – they just have to fill those theatres! Their excellent schools work means schools will travel to Stratford, often much of the audience is made up language groups and international visitors – are the RSC making a mistake in second guessing their expectations? Perhaps an element of self censorship has developed…’ aarrgh what will all those foreigners expect/want?…ah yes more of the same.. excellent but, the same’.
    I’m thrilled to have the RSC in Stratford as (almost) my local theatre, I’m constantly and soppily in awe of almost everything they do… but maybe it’s also their ‘duty’ to kick the audience into accepting and revelling in the ‘new’ too.. its gonna be a long job, but someone got to do it

  • Andrew

    Thanks Glynis. I agree, I suspect if Troilus And Cressida had opened at The Young Vic after Michel Sheen’s Hamlet it would have been seen as a radical, interesting and necessary re-evaluation of a play which everyone agrees is almost impossible to stage. I also wonder if The Wooster Group might have been given a better reception in Stratford if they were Polish or Korean?

    In March this year Lyn Gardner in The Guardian reported a ground swell of opinion that the RSC has declined under Michael Boyd’s stewardship into a school syllabus, Shakespeareland tourist trap while, “Companies such as Propeller and Filter frequently produce Shakespeare that feels far more inventive, modern and relevant” ( so let’s hope enough people want to see the RSC embrace contemporary theatre-making to encourage further experimentation and more conversations like this one.

  • mdoness

    good to read your blog and the comments.
    Since when was theatre obliged to be ‘easy’ and ‘ always work’? Since when does ‘engaging the audience’ always have to mean we should feel safe and satisfied? Do you think if this play had opened in London – in any theatre – it would have had so many walk outs?
    I don’t go to much theatre, I have walked out of plays at the interval, but when an obviously quality set of actors and directors are showing me something ‘strange’ and not easily fathomable, it seems only fair that I should do my bit and work with it to see what they are trying to do.
    We know Stratford is a place of ‘secular pilgrimage’, but surely we, as audience, can tolerate some non-conformity and dissension from the hagiopoly (sic). We seem to be able to adore the (brilliant) Julius Caesar, respectfully nod and smile at the current charming Russian Midsummer’s but balk at King John and this Troilus..I am at a loss to find where the fault line is between them and their interpretations.
    Andrew helpfully reminds us that Realism is a19th century idea and in Britain it is still the default position for academia and popular criticism alike (I’ve never been to a ‘reading group’ that doesn’t revolve around a discussion of how ‘real’ the characters were..dohh).
    Maybe as a culture we have never really taken Modernism into our hearts – maybe the Wooster group has.

  • Trojan

    To answer the question…yes it was as bad as everyone says. It was self indulgent, self important,self conscious showing off. Which is ok at the Fringe, and can be fun, but there’s no excuse for tedium. The audience’s body language said it all: bored,embarrassed, angry was all there. I was one who didn’t return after the interval ,unique for me. But I was bone achingly bored, and there’s no excuse for that.

  • Ruffordman

    I think we have reached a pouint of agreement here.

  • Andrew

    I agree, engagement is what matters, then it’s up to the audience whether they like or dislike what they have engaged with so, while I understand The Wooster Group’s reluctance to explain their work, maybe a few words of explanation about their process and artistic intentions might help the audience know what to look for.

    I suppose from my point of view I feel a little embarrassed that having invited a world-famous group of artists to Stratford to participate in a bold, risk-taking experiment they are not being shown more courtesy and respect. Every art form needs an innovative, experimental avant garde to thrive and, while I wouldn’t want every show I see to be a Wooster Group show, I’m glad some of them are.

  • Ruffordman

    I’m with you in everything you say. I rather feel that Michael Boyd or someone else should have seen what was happening or more to the point what was not happening, and stepped in. Ok what would they do and probably artistic freedom is too much for that to happen but one post or Tweet certainly talked about getting their money back. I remember Peter Hall taking over a production of the Shrew in 1960!

  • Ruffordman

    Maybe using the term ‘works’ is too general and just a clumsy shorthand but let us say ‘does an audience engage with a production’. By that standard it fails for the large number of people who walked out at the interval, including at the performance I attended Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson. I realise that a production ‘works’ in different ways for different people. Whilst I am not encouraged to go again your post has given me some food for thought and thank you for that.

  • Andrew

    Thanks, Ruffordman, but I’m curious to know how a production ‘works’? Does John Cage’s music ‘work’ in the same way as Beethoven’s? Does Martha Graham’s choreography ‘work’ in the same way as classical ballet? I liked Erin’s and Duncan’s comments above, it both is and is not Troilus And Cressida and it’s like an immersive art installation – might you have enjoyed it more if you’d watched it from that perspective?

  • Andrew

    Fair comment, Ian, but I’m struck by the fact that both you and Ruffordman below refer to the production ‘not working’ which suggests there’s a function you expected it to perform. If the Wooster Group say, as they do, that they don’t intend to perform that function then might you have got more from it if you accepted it was doing something different? Isn’t that like saying Picasso is a bad painter because his women have both eyes on the same side of their head so it doesn’t ‘work’ as a portrait?

  • Ian Higgins

    More objections:

    1) The Minnesota accents adopted by the Trojans. Pointless, irritating, robbing the language of any expressiveness in its monotonous drawl. I know, I know, you’ll probably say this is exactly what those clever Woosters were aiming for. Fine. But: it didn’t work.

    2) The video screens which accompanied (or dictated) the Wooster performances fell totally flat. It was actually embarrassing to watch. Meant nothing, communicated nothing, did nothing to entertain or engage. I ended up ignoring it, as many others no doubt did. The fact that the best defence you can come up with is ‘come on, that’s funny!’ says it all.

    3) The Wooster group were humiliatingly shown up by the RSC players. Not on purpose, mind you. The RSC actors were clearly very generous, not deliberately upstaging the Woosters. But the gulf in class was so obvious it was embarrassing. I by no means enjoyed everything about the Greek half of the production, but the actors communicated character, emotion, poetry. The Woosters did none of this. And if, as Elizabeth LeCompte has claimed, that she ‘does not like the theatre and does not like Shakespeare’, why did this production even happen?

    I wouldn’t have minded watching the thing for an hour or two. It wasn’t so bad as to make me walk out. But the thing went on for nearly 4 hours, and most of the second half consisted of people running round in circles on stage, masticating Shakespeare’s lines. It wasn’t insulting, revolting, or provocative in any way – that would have been preferrable. It was just boring. And mildly irritating. Quite irritating in fact.

  • Ruffordman

    They say that inside every fat man there is a thin man trying to get out. I thought there were one or two good performances trying to get out of this production, notably Scott Handy ((Ulysses) and Greg Mehrten (Pandarus). I think we should ask two questions of this production. Firstly is it true to the text? I think the answer is maybe in parts but generally hard to tell because delivery was often indistinct. Second question is did it work? The answer has to be no although I did stay to the end unlike say 25% of the audience!

  • Andrew

    Thanks Duncan, ‘it’s as good as watching Mark E Smith singing with his back to the audience’ should go straight up on the billboards outside the theatre! I think you’ve nailed it when you say it both ‘is and is not Troilus And Cressida’ and I agree with you that in some ways The Wooster Group’s bit is easier to buy into than the RSC’s; it felt at times as if I were watching Donald Wolfit on stage with Marlon Brando but I guess that clash is the point. Have fun at The Riverside Studios.

  • Duncan

    Saw this in Stratford and liked it so much I’m seeing it again at the Riversides Studios in London. At least with regard to TWG part, the production demonstrates that you can let the words take care of the presentation of narrative and character. Their staging is so outlandish that it cancels itself out, but is also completely memorable. This is and is not Troilus & Cressida.

    I connect this production with my cherished memories of watching Mark E Smith of The Fall sing with his back to the audience. It was that good.

  • Andrew

    Thanks Erin, I agree with you that if people approach it as ‘an immersive art installation’ they’ll be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it. I think The Wooster Group’s production of Hamlet went into venues more associated with experimental work but presumably the point of the collaboration with the RSC was to bring them into the home of the Shakespeare tradition and put a bomb under it. I agree with you about the length, although I must admit I find few shows at the RSC say anything in three hours they couldn’t have said just as well in two and a half. 

  • Erin Sullivan

    Thanks for such a great post! I completely agree with what you say about a mismatch of expectations and artistic form. I found the Troilus very interesting at times – for me it was more like an immersive art installation than a play – and I liked it for that. But 3.5 hours was much too long for me, and I kind of wish they had just jettisoned much of the text/mashed it up/read it backwards, to signal better to new audiences (like me) what they were trying to do. I think for me the production would have worked better in a black box theatre stripped of some of the stately beauty you get in a theatre like the Swan and also in which tickets are no more than £20 (ideally less). I think if you’re going to deconstruct traditional theatrical norms you should probably also subvert traditional theatre prices – I think some people might have been more open to the production had they not felt like they were essentially getting ripped off. I’m really glad I got the chance to see it – it definitely challenged me as a theatregoer – but I don’t know if I’d go for repeat performances.

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