Shakespearing #31.1 by David Foley
Interlude: Cry, Trojans!
I’ve had to take a break from Shakespearing for a couple of weeks, so as an interlude, here are some thoughts on the Wooster Group’s Cry, Trojans!, their performance of the Trojan scenes from Troilus and Cressida. It began as a co-production of the whole play with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. The British cast, directed by Mark Ravenhill, played the Greeks, and the Americans, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, played the Trojans. Here, with both the Brits and the Greeks out of the way, everyone can relax. Now and then, when required for the plot, the Americans channel their erstwhile castmates, and it’s hard not to feel that, when they do so, they’re a little bit taking the piss.
Another thing that’s been gotten out of the way is Shakespeare. The Wooster Group’s relationship to the texts they choose is always somewhat accidental, a sort of now-and-then collision with language and intent. It’s not that they’re not good with text. All of the actors handle Shakespeare’s words fluently and yet still manage to communicate an indifference to, perhaps a suspicion of, the text as language. Kate Valk as Cressida seems to be channeling Frances McDormand in Fargo, and Scott Shepherd lilts Troilus’s speeches dopily. Every once in a while someone breaks out into a Native American chant.
Because they’re Indians. Did I mention that? There’s a teepee, a portable campfire, and multiple breechclouts among other detritus from popular representations of the American Indian (lanky black wigs, a top hat, a liquor bottle, shuffling dances).
Detritus, it occurs to me, is what the Wooster Group does best. Their flotsam aesthetic is on full view here in the costumes and props and in the four TVs pinned to the corners of the stage which play, in turn, videos from Native American films (lots of Eskimos) and Splendor in the Grass. At times, the actors copy the gestures of the actors on screen.
The result is something like being sewn to the image, like Peter Pan to his shadow. Sewn or chained or at any rate unable to escape the remembered gestures, as if not just their but our every movement shadowed forth some half-remembered trope. This can sometimes be beautiful and haunting as it was in the Woosters’ production of Hamlet a few years back, in which Shepherd played Hamlet against a projection of Richard Burton in the 1964 Broadway production. They “channel[ed] the ghost of the 1964 production,” as their website says, “replacing [their] own spirit with the spirit of another.” The production became a lyric, sorrowful meditation on the ephemera of performance, of theatre, of acting, of culture itself.
Here the replacing spirit seems a poor exchange, as if the remembered gestures keep trying and failing to evoke a spirit that long ago dissolved in fragments, as if these ersatz Indians are trying to recapture a forgotten language with a handful of leftover phrases. The result is a hectic emptiness, which is not such a bad approach to Troilus and Cressida. A couple of years ago, the Woosters did a version of Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carré, and perhaps they took on that play and this play for similar reasons: nobody cares what you do to them. Their Vieux Carré was less an interpretation of Williams’s play than a manic x-ray of the mind that produced it: the late-life Tennessee still frantically trying to cobble a play together out of fragments of sex and death and guilt and memory.
Something similar may be going on here. Strip Troilus and Cressida of its rhetoric, and you’re left with a numb hopelessness that has none of the grandeur of despair. The Indian Love Song scenes between Troilus and Cressida, the Indian War Parley scenes at the Trojan court, the incoherent war cries as the play reaches its violent conclusion may not illuminate Shakespeare’s tragic romance, but they capture something hiding in the heart of it: a feeling that all these gestures—love and war and honor and ambition—have been emptied of recognizable meaning.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.