I snuck away from London over the past two days on a kind of avant-garde Shakespeare mini-break. Last night I was in Stratford to see Troilus and Cressida, a co-pro between the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Wooster Group. Today I drove to Cardiff to see the first performance of Coriolan/us, a National Theatre Wales adaptation after Shakespeare and Brecht staged in a very big aircraft hanger at RAF St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan. Neither production is on for long – Troilus is in Stratford until 18 August, then 23 August to 8 September in London, and there are only six more dates for Coriolan/us before 18 August – but both are essential for anyone interested in contemporary theatre, and in the ever more intimate connections of live performance and media. I’m not sure I’ve yet made sense of either production for myself, but undaunted I thought I’d offer some first notes.
In Stratford’s Swan I sat next to a quartet of heartland RSC goers who at the interval of Troilus were utterly bemused. When they discovered that I had been entranced by the first half, they wanted to know why the Americans (that is, the Wooster Group stalwarts, who were taking the parts of the Trojans) weren’t acting. And why were they not looking at each other, but at video screens suspended some way above their – and our – heads? Why did they have such funny accents? Why were they using mics and making no effort to ‘project’? And what was the Native American thing going on? My new friends didn’t mind it being in modern dress – they expected that from the RSC, after all – but it was as if the Americans, you know, weren’t really trying? What did it all mean?
I endeavoured to suggest that worrying about meaning, at least for the moment, was maybe not the most productive approach. And that the Americans were in fact exceptionally skilful, and that they had prepared for this with the most rigorous rehearsals. As for the the flat, affectless, disconnected performances and the careful synchronisation with the video showing an edit of what looked like an Inuit film crossed with chunks of Hollywood melodrama, well, this was The Wooster Group – and this is what they do. Brilliantly, dangerously, without compromise or care for the befuddled reactions of those sitting in Stalls Row H.
‘Take it on its own terms,’ I said. It’s not often, after all, that you can see a venerable performance tradition of the New York downtown scene colliding with the tropes and tics of the RSC way when – among the Greeks – this is also being achieved at the highest level. I was sufficiently persuasive for the four to return for the (long) second half (others, deprived of the benefits of my exegesis, made for the exits). Not that I think the production won them over by the end, when the hard seats of the Swan had made us all suffer just a bit for our art.
Apparently it was the – brilliant, bonkers – idea of director Rupert Goold (whose film of Macbeth we produced) to bring The Wooster Group together with the RSC. From the start it was to be a show that, in the main, would be rehearsed by the two teams separately. Earlier this year a conflicting commitment led to Rupert’s withdrawal and playwright Mark Ravenhill coming in to marshal the RSC actors (who include Scott Handy, Malcolm in Macbeth). Ravenhill ramps up the camp (Zubin Varla’s Thersites – ‘wars and lechery, nothing else holds fashion’ – is a desperate drag queen in a wheelchair) and offers some suggestive contemporary parallels with the war in Iraq. We are engaged when we are with the Greeks, but this is a schtick with which we are familiar.
In the Native American encampment of the Trojans, conjured into being by Wooster Group founding member Elizabeth LeCompte, we are most definitely not in Stratford anymore. Here the drama is alien and unsettling (and bravo, bravo to the RSC for embracing this). As you enter into this world, with Marin Ireland as Cressida and Troilus played by Scott Shepherd (recently seen in Gatz in the West End), you begin to hear the rhythms of the language differently and to recognise unfamiliar layers of allusion and new forms of feeling. The ‘wooing’ scene with Pandarus bringing the young lovers together, played just before the interval, is moving and revelatory.
As the clock creeps towards 11pm the project loses something of its focus (blame the show going up late, as well as those hard seats). Act V, at least on Tuesday, seemed like a bit of a struggle for everyone. Even so, I was thrilled to have been a witness, although I still don’t really understand the monitors and the concern with synchronising movements and words with this parallel drama (when the Greeks are on, we see only a white line on black). Perhaps there’s a clue in this fragment from ‘A memo from the Office of Mesophytics on behalf of The Wooster Group’ that is included in the programme:
Japanese essayist Yoshida Kenko writes, ‘a man of good taste should not look directly at anything beautiful, whether it be a moon or a flower.’
There’s another programme note that is worth quoting, this time from Mark Ravenhill reflecting on the reputation of Troilus:
… it seems wrong to use rehearsal and performance to sort out the ‘problem’ of the play: to provide a consistency of psychology, of information and of tone where Shakespeare intended there to be none. What seems more exciting – and more honest to Shakespeare’s play – is to resist the urge while rehearsing the play to give it an imposed coherence and to instead find a way to bring the problem of the play to the audience in the theatre.
On the next evening, and two hours or so to the south-east, my main problem is finding the ‘theatre’. National Theatre Wales are playing Coriolan/us at RAF St Athan, which is a half-hour outside Cardiff. (memo for NTW: more signs please.) This is a follow-up to a by-all-accounts remarkable site-specific staging of Aeschylus’ The Persians, and is again devised and directed by Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes. There’s some background to the production in this Andrew Dickson piece for the Guardian.
On arrival you are briefed about the headset that you are to wear throughout and then you mill around by a pair of vast blue doors. One of these is pulled back and you enter beneath a cavernous concrete shell (a sense of this can be got from the image above). Into the crowd drives a van from the top of which we are soon being harangued – on the first occasion of many – as the people of Rome.
We are free to walk around the action and to wander the length of this spectacular space. Some of the action takes place in caravans around the periphery but much is alongside and on and in the several cars and vans that treat the hanger’s floor as the streets of the city. Even if we are not directly watching the actors we can hear their words – accompanied by a dense music track – on the earphones. And on two screens hung high above us we watch a live monochrome video mix of the action, which is being shot by crews on the ground and robot cameras suspended on wires.
Corionlan/us is an installation and a live film and a television drama and a radio play. The experience is a touch overwhelming, and all of the elements work, and not only in technical terms, quite brilliantly. But initially I’m not sure that it’s theatre – or at least whether it works as theatre. In the opening scenes the drama is confusing (for the first hour I struggle with who’s who and what’s what), the performances are to begin with insufficiently distinguished, and any sense of engagement is hard to come by. The headphones tend to disconnect you from the drama, and at times I feel both present and weirdly absent.
Then (and it takes a while) it all begins to weave a very particular – and very powerful – magic. You are drawn in by the power games by and around Coriolanus (played with brooding menace by Richard Lynch), by the debates over whether he should be banished from Rome, and by his treachery of seeking asylum with his sworn enemies and returning to sack the city. In the close-to-concluding confrontation with his mother Volumnia (Rhian Morgan), I was intensely involved, captivated by what was at stake both personally and politically. And then there is a brilliant moment of shock still to come.
Just like Troilus, Coriolan/us is provocative and exciting and truly memorable. How great it is that we live in a time when companies like the RSC and The Wooster Group and National Theatre Wales are planning and playing at the top of their game, when the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 Festival can, in part at least, be the catalyst for such wonders, and when – quite simply – our arts can offer such riches.
Image: cast member Jonny Glynn and co-director Mike Pearson in Hangar 858 Picketson, the setting for Coriolan/us ; courtesy Warren Orchard/ National Theatre of Wales.