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The actors have been robbed of their faces. Cheek by Jowl company’s director, Declan Donnellan, and designer, Nick Ormerod, have lit their production in such a way that you rarely see one of the performers’ greatest assets. Add the complications of strange placing with questionable vocal delivery and the consequences are boring and dispiriting in equal measure. But these are assertions. Let me make my case.
Shakespeare is only part of the problem for a company taking on this piece. Unlike audiences in Shakespeare’s time, we must assume that today’s audiences know little of the Trojan wars. In contrast, he could assume they knew something of each named character and so he loaded the action with many famous names, too many for us. If they’re all important people, where is the focus? The director’s storytelling ability and actors’ characterisations must be very sharp.
Although there is a linking storyline, Shakespeare seems to have written two other elements which can be hurdles. Interspersed with the action are digressive dialogue scenes of argument and musing which need pointing to give relevance. Then there is the Troilus and Cressida plot. Apart from these characters supposedly being contemporary with the war, why are they in the play? Not just ‘love interest’. Shakespeare was a better dramatist than to graft on an unrelated box office plot line. For me, this production resolves none of these difficulties. Certainly there is no sense of resolution for Troilus and Cressida. Their plot simply stops and I am confused and wonder what the entire play is about.
First the playing area. Cheek by Jowl, although based in the Barbican theatre, seem not to think of it as suitable for their productions. Usually they reconfigure both shape and relationship of audience and playing area. For this presentation they have created a strip of playing space about 35 feet wide running from the front of the existing stage to the stage back wall. The audience sit either side of this strip in ten rows of banked seating, roughly from the side stage into the wings. The existing auditorium is curtained off.
The playing area is covered lengthwise with five strips of light, mottled sandy-coloured material curving high upward at one end, creating one entrance space. At the other the material hangs, the centre strips recessed to give another entry. This material takes light very well and seems many times brighter than faces. In fact, it seems as if the show is running on the scenery lighting plot, the actors’ lighting forgotten. The variation is between harsh top lights or a dim wash, not quite bright enough to reveal detail.
The direction seems to have taken the view that the play needs pictures and energy. For the visuals the actors are treated like scenery or statues, things to group and thus carry a message, which sometimes they do. But is this enough? To keep up the pace and provide more images, the Donnellan Cross Fade is used. This entails overlapping scenes or action so that the incoming players seem to comment on the image at the end of the previous scene, or the image adds context to the incoming scene. I note these are getting longer in his productions and are dangerously near a mannerism.
Presumably, to give energy, people run about a lot. They have to, to get into their positions, usually at either end of the playing area. Very often the characters portray a high degree of anger too. Most of the cast can do this very well but then the rest of the participants in the scene are expected to physically restrain them – sometimes through great swathes of dialogue. Once is very effective. Twice underlines the point well. After that the many repetitions look as if you’ve run out of ideas.
To avoid the problems of clusters of people masking each other, the direction places them time after time, like tennis players parted by considerable distance. Intimate duologues are conducted whilst the actors move over 30 to 50 metre distances. And if there is additional action happening between them in the middle of the area, we are asked to believe that the end couple are not being overheard! More importantly, the splitting of the audience to each side of the playing area and the parting of players prevent the sense of participation, of audience complicity, which the actor needs to get to grips with the longer discursive scenes. These arrangements destroy the playwright’s points and reason for the play.
Finally, the acting. The actor’s instrument is himself, a personality split into three trained channels: face, body and voice. With faces removed by the production we must rely on body and voice only. Body is where these actors are at their best. The cast look fit and slim. The men lean to perform the running, long moves and posing demanded; the women are a little more rounded. The Greek warriors are especially neurotically taut and good at suggesting the orgasmic relief obtained in fighting. Regrettably, most of this physical energy does not to translate into dramatic energy and time drags because the cast are not vocally gifted.
There is one member of this cast that I hazard has the vocal quality needed, and he does not fully exploit it. For the rest they are street voices – little or no basic tone sustained by breath control – which they have learned to make louder. These are thin and difficult to listen to.
Often this company allow the casts to speak a complicated speech as if they were thinking it for the first time. Admirable, except that they have a lot of unbelievably slow thinkers, people who parcel out information so that you’ve forgotten what they started out to say. Their other problem is their response to rhythm: having detected it, they ride it unvaryingly, like a hobby horse on a choppy sea. Lastly, they have the actor whose feeling for reality or naturalism demands that he speaks almost loudly enough to be heard until passion robs him of the ability to communicate the end of the line. You have no remedy in this production because you cannot even see to lip-read.
And where is personality? Both Greeks and Trojans posture. The young are passionate and the old are avuncular, or like a John Major slowed down. Typically, the last words of the play are spoken in such a matter-of-fact way, we might be receiving a big cheque, but was that the end?
For theatre professionals this would be an interesting production to study how an experienced production team have approached a little-performed Shakespeare. A general audience not knowing the play would find little enlightenment.
Norman Tozer © 2008
Originally published on R&V 30-05-08
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