Written soon after Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida is by a long chalk Shakespeare’s most unpleasant play. With a pox-ridden Pandarus and the filthy-minded nihilist Thersites as our guides to one of the least savoury episodes in the Trojan war, Shakespeare probes the cesspit of human nature. It’s an exploration of a farthest frontier from which Shakespeare might never have returned, only to do so magnificently in the works of his final period. To grapple with this play is to increase one’s awestruck understanding of Iago’s dedication to evil and the sagacity of the Fool in Lear.
Stratford’s outrageous new co-production is a madcap transatlantic gamble. An RSC ensemble directed by Mark Ravenhill play the Greeks, while New York’s experimental Wooster Group under Elizabeth LeCompte play the Trojans. The Woosters, no relations it would seem of Bertie and named after the street where they live in Lower Manhattan, do the Trojans as Indians wielding lacrosse sticks — we’re in Hiawatha territory with a wigwam, campfire and a disastrous long black wig for the restless, tomahawk-faced Troilus (Scott Shepherd). The RSC do the Greeks as the bored-silly veterans of some Middle Eastern desert campaign.
Storybook credulity is, however, abolished by assertive technical interference. While the Greek Brits are allowed the low-tech of their natural voices in the acoustically friendly Swan, the Americans are untrustingly wired-up for amplification with undisguised face-mikes. Every now and then they glance up at prominent video screens, seeking to synchronise their movements with a film of Eskimo life and, for the encounters of Troilus and Cressida, a Hollywood movie with Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.
Once you’ve blinkered your sensibility against this nonsense, you can engage with other deconstructions of the Shakespearean script. Scott Handy, the bespectacled house-intellectual Ulysses of the Greeks, crosses the pond to appear in a blond Afro wig as the sweetly intoning Helen (‘the heart-blood of beauty, love’s visible soul’). Agamemnon (Danny Webb) transmutes into a bush-hatted Aussie Diomedes to claim Marin
Ireland’s Cressida for himself and sundry other Greek generals.
Ari Fliakos’s Hector, the fearsome Trojan champion, comes up to no more than the navel of Joe Dixon’s massively pectoral Achilles. Having spent most of the evening in white towelling on a hospital treatment trolley, the lacrymose Dixon is eventually sprung into action by the death of Patroclus, his high-heeled 52nd Street black queen. He upstages Aidan Kelly’s Michelin Ajax by appearing in a scarlet Hollywood goddess gown, then swaps this for a gold-trimmed ammo vest before killing the unarmed Hector and raping the corpse with his sword. Zubin Varla’s Thersites is a transvestite madam with a fine taste in wigs. He scoots around the stage as a would-be paralympic wheelchair amputee, rasping into a microphone his undeceived commentary on the vainglorious heroics, deceptions and lechery which rule the stage.
You certainly can’t fault the production in its fidelity to Auden’s observation that in the play ‘everything should be made grotesque’. And this is all of a piece with the tortuous convolutions and philosophical ramblings of the text — here surprisingly well delivered by a terrific cast — which seem to dump the play in a dramatic no-man’s-land from which Shakespeare barely pulls it back in the final scenes. The Woosters’ postmodern gambits blow up the grotesquerie, creating images and unexpected vistas they hope will stay in the mind and release new meaning from the play. Whether it’ll work for you personally is another matter, but I can see it attracting a cult following and becoming a Trojan Rocky Horror Show when it plays at the London Riverside Studios from 24 August. With winning environmental incorrectitude, the programme boasts that the sculptural styrofoam of designer Folkert de Jong’s costumes ‘will never decompose’ — an apt enough metaphor for the persistent darkness visible of the play itself.
Light breaks anew at Stratford with an all-Russian import. Dmitry Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) is an hilarious footnote to the Pyramus and Thisbe episode. The lovers’ story is retold circus-style with the help of monster constructivist puppets by mechanicals who swap proletarian bib-and-brace for patrician white tie and tails. This isn’t the only idea stood on its head, or in the case of Venya, the omnipresent Jack Russell Terrier effortlessly upstaging Uggie in The Artist, on its hind quarters. The narrator’s surtitled commentary splices Shakespeare into Russian history down to Putin’s Lubianka, while mocking itself and every aspect of the show (‘it’s not ready yet, you might do better taking your children to the zoo’). As this safely puts the evening beyond criticism, lay your scruples aside and revel in an often deeply touching affirmation of theatrical magic. If you’re lucky you might just catch it at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (24 to 26 August).