Shakespeare and a clash of cultures
Nearly 400 years ago, the war between the Trojans and the Greeks inspired Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida. This summer, that war’s being brought back to the stage in a new co-production between Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and American experimental theatre company, The Wooster Group. But in a new twist, both companies are rehearsing their scenes separately. It promises to be a true clash of cultures – and different approaches to Shakespeare.
In one camp, The Wooster Group is playing the Trojans – re-imagined as native American Indians. As Director Elizabeth LeCompte told me: “Shakespeare is really not our native language and neither as an art form or culturally. So I think we naturally gravitated toward the Indian which for us is some alter ego in the American myth.”
Wooster Group actors are channelling the spirits of native American characters they see on screens around the rehearsal room – and hear through ear pieces. Associate Director Kate Valk told me: “The idea is to shorten the time for the performer between impulse and action, to minimise thought so that the performer is surprised and is neither ahead or behind what the impulse is.”
In the opposite camp is Britain’s revered Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s playing the Greeks – dressed in modern Desert Storm combat gear.
Director Mark Ravenhill told me: “The Wooster Group world is a very high tech world in many ways, there’s video screens and mics and everything. So we have deliberately created a poor theatre world really – we’ve just got six actors playing the whole of the Greek army and one percussionist and a kind of rag bag of costumes mostly contemporary.”
For the few scenes in the play in which the Greeks and the Trojans meet, the two tribes rehearse their own contributions separately and then come together to combine their efforts. The result is a true clash of cultures – but one that perhaps stands in as a metaphor for how Greeks and Trojans would have felt in the presence of their enemies.
Joe Dixon is playing Achilles for the RSC: “I think it builds up a healthy competition because we have these two rival camps, Trojans and Greeks and we have these two different companies, American and British, and I think it has a healthy rivalry so when we come together there’s an expectation of, ‘What are you going to do, What are we going to do?’ I think that for us it works very well that we’re working separately because there is a suspicion, a rivalry, an exoticism about the Trojan camp from the Greek perspective.”
Troilus and Cressida is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. It isn’t a comedy, a tragedy or a history. The lead characters don’t behave well and aren’t particularly likeable. Their love story is overtaken by war and politics and remains unresolved. And on top of this, it’s easily one of Shakespeare’s most bleak and cynical plays. So the question is, will this radical new approach solve any of its problems or only make it even more difficult to digest?
I asked Kate Valk of the Wooster Group: “We’re not trying to subvert, we’re trying to illuminate”, she told me.
“We’re trying to find what is the modern metaphor that makes those 400 year old words resonate to us in our lives. So it’s not just a museum piece, that we can experience the language viscerally now, the way we live our lives.”
Mark Ravenhill has a different take on the issue. “I think we’re really celebrating the fact that it is a problem play. I think that when you first read the play it’s the oddity, it’s the unreliability of the information, that what the Trojans say about the Greeks doesn’t at all match up with the Greeks that you actually meet. Nothing quite matches in the play as you read it. So I think presenting it like this is a very honest response to the true nature of the play.”
Of course binding together both approaches to the play is the language of Shakespeare. Rather than showing how different we are from the Americans, it could end up proving how similar we are. Perhaps appropriate in this Olympic Summer in which international relations are centre stage. And Shakespeare has been chosen as a cultural keystone.
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