Struggling with Shakespeare

Struggling with Shakespeare
Scott Shepherd plays both lovelorn Troilus (far left) and cruel Achilles in the theatrical production Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida), staged at School of the Arts Studio Theatre.

STUPEFYINGLY dull, offensive and an insult to Shakespeare? Or a work that pulls the rug out from under every sacred convention of theatre?

Cry, Trojans! (which I might subtitle Cry, Unsuspecting Audiences!) is all this and more, a 21/2-hour determined trudge through the minefield of Troilus & Cressida, one of the Bard's "problem plays".

Ostensibly about the doomed love story between the title characters from Troy, who pledge their love and then are ripped apart in two consecutive sets of betrayals (one political, one personal), the play is framed within a larger tale of betrayal of the Trojans by the Greeks, shunting aside the "protagonists" and initial bursts of ribald humour for a violent, gloomy glimpse of war.

The New York-based Wooster Group shocked their American audiences with what seemed to be "redface", the blatant cultural appropriation of Native Americans.

The Trojans were styled as a fictional tribe, feathers and all, dressed in grungy traditional dress that, at first glance, might have been pulled off the rack from a used costume store, yet is morbidly striking - some of the warriors sheath themselves in busts of Greek statues, worn on their backs like scalped human trophies.

At the production's debut in Stratford-upon-Avon, the group horrified World Shakespeare Festival audiences, who derided the ensemble for poor acting, and demanded "good theatre technique".

It is on this polarising final production that the six-week Singapore International Festival of Arts closes with a startling bang.

I, myself, emerged from the theatre in a slight delirium, with a tension headache and a churning stomach, but mostly from the prospect of looking at this production, piece by piece.

The work does not necessarily reward the patient. It is a challenging production, sometimes tedious and difficult to follow, and riddled with problems - the most basic of which involves having an all-white cast replicate, to the point of slapstick, Native American culture.

And yet, I found myself inexplicably tugged along by the silent undercurrents of this conceptual melting pot. Will the conqueror ever fully understand what oppression means to the conquered?

The group is unabashed about this futility - no, we will never come to terms with the blood we have shed on Native American soil; all we have left is a sort of play-acting within which we forcibly confine ourselves.

The cast denigrate themselves, almost self-flagellatingly, before the stereotype of the Native American.

Director Elizabeth LeCompte has stated that the starting point for this work was Shakespearean English as a second language for many American performers; layered over that beginning are interruptions of historical baggage, technological innovation and the group's fiercely single-minded pursuit of a perfection that only its ensemble seems privy to.

The Studio Theatre has been reshaped into a version of the group's Performing Garage in New York City, and its mostly bare stage is surrounded by television screens.

It quickly becomes clear that the cast are miming gestures from film excerpts played on these screens, whether in a barren Inuit landscape or the high melodrama of Elizabeth Taylor in glamorous Old Hollywood.

But which is which? Are the videos a simulacrum for the action on stage or are the gestures that are copied universal ones, to be read across circumstance and context?

Some earn a chilling edge, when the glitz of leading Hollywood ladies flirting with their men is transposed onto the shocking delivery of Cressida into enemy hands.

Others, when actors suddenly erupt into song, feel like a lazy gimmick.

But when these moments work, they gain a stark resonance: All that will be performed has already been performed, the same way history will mimic what has gone before.

Troilus and Cressida use the same gestures of violence on each other as the Trojans do in their pow-wow over what to do with Helen: Return their princess to the Greeks and end the war, or keep her and their honour at the risk of bloodshed? They trade blows, they convulse, they stroke their hair.

The cast don masks when they play the Greeks, with a doubling of parts that turns enemies into friends and heroes into villains. The actor who plays lovelorn Troilus (Scott Shepherd) also plays cruel Achilles.

These multi-layered characters seem to be a microcosm for the production.

So much is at play in every scene: A deconstruction of the idea of acting, the repetition of movement across genres and art forms, the echoes of recordings of previous iterations of the same production, a Mobius strip folding onto itself.

Conceptually, Cry, Trojans! is fascinating - but also the equivalent of pulling apart a complicated metronome.

Its inner parts may be intriguing, but it always trots out the same rhythm.

It is as if the group has created the machinery of a universe all to itself, and I could not help but feel like a sidelined observer, able only to chip away at its surface.

One thing is for sure - this is Shakespeare as you have never seen it, and might never see again, in a tide of ceaseless contradictions. corriet@sph.com.sg

Book it CRY, TROJANS! (TROILUS & CRESSIDA)

Where: School of the Arts Studio Theatre

When: Today, 8pm and tomorrow, 3pm

Admission: $55 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Info: sifa.sg

For more reviews and features on Singapore International Festival of Arts productions from Life!'s arts journalists, go to www.straitstimes.com/sifa2014


This article was first published on September 20, 2014.
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