Product, Arcola Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

There’s something behind Olivia Poulet’s eyes. It might be steely pragmatism. It might be desperation. It might be suppressed disbelief at the spectacularly awful script she is determinedly trying to sell. It might, worse, be genuine passion for the regurgitated tropes she’s trotting out. It might even be dollar signs, if the starlet she’s pitching to gives the nod.

Mark Ravenhill’s monologue is a witty parody of the film-studio hard sell, the product of its title a slice of syrupy Hollywood cliché – the kind that rots your teeth. Girl meets boy. Girl goes on journey. Love over all else. It’s sharp, clever, self-satisfied. Only in the (nervously gesturing) hands of Poulet does it become something more than that. As a riff on the cynical, opportunistic practices of movie executives, Product is arch and entertaining. As an essay on shit-shovelling desperation, it’s blackly depressing.

Poulet is Leah, the producer charged with getting a star name on board for a new project. Problem is, the project in question is Mohammed and Me, a post-9/11 mash-up of romcom and jihadism with a cameo from Osama Bin Laden (yes, really). Sitting in for Julia, the actor selected to save this rapidly sinking ship, we’re treated to Leah’s increasingly frantic pitch as she takes us on the emotional journey of “three-dimensional” lead Amy. “I would love to see you play three-dimensional,” she croons at us, smile fixed.

Folding the War on Terror into classic chick-lit formula, Mohammed and Me is the doomed love story of a 9/11 widow and a suicide bomber – or, in appearance-obsessed Hollywood-speak, a Versace-clad businesswoman and the “tall, dusky fellow” she finds herself sat next to on a flight. Step aside Romeo and Juliet; this is a star-crossed romance like no other. Leah walks us through the movieland Holy Trinity of attraction, separation and reunion, with bomb threats and prison break-ins thrown in for good measure. “This is the world of the heart,” she earnestly intones, with all the persuasion of one who’s never had call for the organ.

It’s clearly tripe, with Ravenhill using the godawful script in Leah’s hands as a vehicle for taking pops at everything from Hollywood’s casual misogyny to its obsession with sex and violence (the two often barely distinguishable from one another). There’s a transformation montage scene, a blandly identikit mother/aunt/neighbour figure – “she’s too old to fuck, too old to kick ass, but we still have a place for her in our world” – and a suitably slushy soundtrack. Tick, tick, tick.

But what Poulet does in Robert Shaw’s production is give the money-making behemoth of Hollywood human context. Darting her eyes from side to side, appealing to us with her ever-moving hands, narrating the plot of Mohammed and Me with desperate abandon, Leah has the look of a woman possessed. What she’s possessed with, exactly, is ambiguous. At moments, she seems swept away by the story, eyes closed in its telling. At others, she’s practically gagging on this material, correcting herself mid-sentence: “This material is fab – is going to be fabulous once it’s punched up”. Either way, there’s a constant undertow of desperation and self-deceit, hinting at all the things we force ourselves and others believe in the name of self-interest.

Having the monologue spoken by a woman (it was originally performed by Ravenhill himself) also twists it in intriguing directions, glazing the misogyny with an even sourer coating. When Leah patronisingly says that she “cried like a woman” and jokingly refers to her listener as a “bitch”, you sense that she really means it. Especially in Shaw and Poulet’s interpretation, this isn’t just about the movie industry; it’s about all those oppressive internalised narratives – of sexism, of racism, of greed – that twenty-first-century capitalism shoves down our throats. The scariest suggestion is that we might just end up swallowing them.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Troilus and Cressida, RSC & The Wooster Group

Surfacing from the much-maligned RSC/Wooster Group Troilus and Cressida with a tingling sense of mild bemusement and dizzying disorientation, my initial and surprisingly strong instinct was “I don’t want to write about this”. Luckily for me, I was under no obligation to wrench out any words; for once I was a plus one, not a reviewer, and my notebook had remained firmly tucked away in my bag throughout the performance. Freshly singed from Edinburgh’s baptism of fire, I was determined that for this theatre trip I would be a spectator and nothing more. And my immediate thought on stepping out of the auditorium was that this determination was a wise one.

Not because I hated the show, which I didn’t. While I had avoided reading reviews, I entered Riverside Studios with an unavoidable awareness of the mass walkouts and the cool critical reception that the production had received in Stratford, prompting curious anticipation as much as trepidation. But when I found myself disagreeing with this general tide of opinion, I was as troubled as I was pleased. I don’t have a problem with veering away from the consensus; instead what disturbed me was a perplexing inability to articulate what it was about the piece that I found so engaging. I felt as though, with my complete lack of reasonable justification or developed critical analysis, I had no real right to state my enjoyment of the production.

I also worry (and some fervent supporters of the production have faced similar accusations) that I am becoming subconsciously entrenched in my tastes. I’m concerned that I have reached a state of mind where experimentation or anything diverging from the “norm” as we conceive of it in British theatre has become synonymous with “good theatre” in my critical vocabulary. I worry that by liking Troilus and Cressida – and particularly by being so evasive about why I liked it – I’m simply fulfilling expectations without really thinking. For all of these reasons, I was glad to be exempt from having to marshal my floating impressions into fixed-down words.

So why am I writing this, you ask? Good question. Well, partly because it’s a challenge, and for that reason alone it’s difficult to resist. To leave this particular challenge untouched would feel like an act of critical cowardice, a weak refusal to stand behind my opinions. And partly because there has so far been a relative dearth of positive critical responses, prompting me to feel that I should at least make an attempt, as feeble as it may be, to pick apart what it was about the production that held me rapt for over three hours (no small feat after being conditioned to accept the Edinburgh norm of one hour shows). While debating with myself about whether or not to write anything, I was also reminded by Andrew Haydon that the process of writing about a piece of theatre doesn’t have to be as complicated as I often make it – in his words: “if in doubt, just describe what you think you saw”.

What I saw was, to employ classic British understatement, a lot. It is easy, from this perspective, to see why it has been dismissed by many as busy and confused. To be completely honest, it kind of is both of those things. Yet this messiness has a logical foundation. I believe co-director Mark Ravenhill has said something along the lines of not wanting to impose any unified meaning on a play that is by its very nature problematic, which seems to make a lot of sense. My memories of briefly studying the text in my first year at university are of a troubling, fragmented play; at the time I far preferred Chaucer’s characteristically humorous telling of the same tale. For a slippery play, it seems apt to employ an equally slippery interpretation.

Also apt is the way in which this collaboration between the RSC and experimental New York-based company The Wooster Group has been carved up. Not really a collaboration at all in the usual sense, the piece has been divided into its Greek and Trojan segments and rehearsed separately on opposite sides of the Atlantic, with The Wooster Group taking on the Trojans under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, while the RSC and Ravenhill (replacing Rupert Goold, who engineered the collaboration) have accepted responsibility for the attacking Greek contingent. There is as a consequence a deep chasm between the two halves, a divide of cultures – or perhaps a head-on crash – in multiple senses.

Reflecting this process, it seems fitting to speak separately about each of the competing aesthetics. The first observation that begs to be made about The Wooster Group’s Trojans is that they are fashioned as Native Americans played by a cast of white New Yorkers. This, as a concept, potentially leans on the offensive side of crass (though this isn’t ultimately how I read it) and is as such inherently problematic. The most obvious way of reading this creative choice is as a comment on the besieged nature of Trojan culture, a culture that – as our knowledge of the narrative and that infamous wooden horse tells us – will soon be all but extinct.

Yet there seem to be more layers than this, not least because the playing of these Native Americans has a distinct gloss of the artificial. The actors’ deliberately messy costumes, while demonstrably marking them as Native Americans, also have modern tweaks and are flecked with odd bits of neon. Most bizarrely, the warriors wear on their backs an armour composed of what look like brightly coloured latex variations on classical statues and fight with weapons including – to collective amusement – a lacrosse stick. I’m tempted from these elements to infer something vague and tentative about time and history. Certainly the striking statue-armour (for want of a better description) creates the impression of the performers clawing their way out of the mythical/historical baggage that inevitably comes with tales of Troy. Laden with baggage too is any representation of Native American culture, a difficulty acknowledged by the production.

That bemusing lacrosse stick, meanwhile, immediately makes me think of school – or at least of the kind of school where people play lacrosse, which seems to exist exclusively in Enid Blyton books. There is an inherent childishness to it, which seemed to me to be linked to a wider feeling of childlike play and imitation that infects the Trojan side of the piece; it as though war is a game or a movie, with no real meaning. Talk of movies brings me onto the other startling aspect of The Wooster Group’s staging, which is the use of four screens mounted at the corners of the stage showing various clips of film. It soon becomes evident that the performers are impersonating the actions in these films, often more focused on the screens than on what is happening in the performance space.

This, as a performance technique, is immediately alienating. It is inevitably distracting, rendering the underlying narrative almost secondary, which is possibly one of The Wooster Group’s biggest problems. Having at least a sketchy, half-remembered knowledge of the source narrative and Shakespeare’s text, I was arguably in a better position to enjoy what has been done with these elements than someone approaching this little performed play for the first time. While these acts of mimicry may partially obscure the text, however, they feel simultaneously born from Shakespeare’s play. Troilus and Cressida is in many ways a bitter satire, and in this context the aping of Hollywood romance by the two title characters during the central wooing scene emerges as a biting comment on the nature of their ill-fated love. Romeo and Juliet this ain’t.

The otherness cultivated by all of the above elements is further cemented by the use of mics, into which The Wooster Group’s performers speak in oddly clinical, flattened tones. Their dislocating inflections suggest both an overt element of the performative – again that emphasis on the artificial which I understand is something of a Wooster Group trademark – and a certain blank absence of emotion which, although the opposite of what actors usually hope to convey, seems appropriate to the lack of meaning that pervades the whole. Everything here is about calculated fakery, from the costumes and accents to the absurdly gorgeous downward projections [at least this is what I think they are – happy to be corrected on any technical elements that I may have misremembered] that outline the placement of props on the stage.

For all the strangeness and lack of narrative clarity, I simply couldn’t help being hypnotised by these uniquely odd Trojans. I like that The Wooster Group kept me guessing and refused to offer anything close to thematic resolution, which was perhaps what kept me so hooked. To watch their half of the show with enjoyment demands an oddly paradoxical combination of distinct concentration and a certain detachment from imposing meaning. I was searching for individual readings, but soon understood that any overarching meaning (at least in the way we usually understand meaning) would elude me, and felt surprisingly fine about that.

I feel that I have less to say about the RSC/Greek side, not because I thought the Trojans were necessarily any better, but because they were just so captivatingly strange that it’s difficult not to be more preoccupied with their half of the production, whatever you make of it. But like The Wooster Group, it is the overall look of the RSC’s Greeks that initially makes an impact. They are, with a couple of exceptions, dressed in military uniforms, immediately emphasising that these are the attackers. This aggressive emblem of masculinity, however, is rapidly contrasted with the wounded ineffectuality and/or effeminacy of many of the soldiers.

It struck me that a conventional concept of masculinity and a subsequent stripping away of this masculinity seemed to be one of the main strands of the RSC side of the production. The set, which is built partly on a revolve which spins from Greek to Trojan side, has a dividing wall clad with mirrors on both sides, but it is on the Greek side that these are most apparent, not being hidden as they are on the Trojan side by a teepee. As well as suggesting something interesting about similarities and otherness, this allows for an element of posing on the part of the Greeks, who include a transvestite, wheelchair-bound Thersities and a WWF-style Ajax.

However – and this feels like a strange observation to make given the bizarreness of The Wooster Group’s staging – there is less cogency to the RSC’s vision. Strange as everything on the Trojan side may be, it all feels woven into one aesthetic; an alien aesthetic, perhaps, but one that sort of makes sense in its own weird way. The clashing elements of the half that the RSC and Ravenhill have crafted, however, feel as though they are trying to do too much at once – perhaps trying to compete with their American counterparts, proving that the British can do this experimental lark too. To an extent it succeeds, but when married with The Wooster Group’s creation it is less two competing styles than a messy collision of many.

There was one line, spoken by Zubin Varla’s fantastic Thersities, which seemed to me to function as a banner under which the whole production might sit: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery: nothing else holds fashion”. There is a feeling of futility that infects Shakespeare’s play, a debunking of both romance and heroism that leaves all of the storyline’s driving elements without any real point. It is this feeling that I would argue is compounded by the RSC/Wooster Group’s messy, contradictory treatment of the text, which draws out the perpetual hold of both “lechery” and “war” and their essential meaninglessness.

Reading this back, I realise that despite initially stating my enjoyment of this production, many of my observations could equally be taken as criticisms. The swallowing of narrative by The Wooster Group’s consciously odd aesthetic might easily be considered a crime against Shakespeare; admitting that the performance is messy, eschews meaning and requires a very particular kind of concentration in order to watch it with enjoyment hardly sounds like a resounding endorsement. The more I think about the production, the more potential criticisms arise, yet somehow I can’t shake my enchantment with this parade of strangeness.

So really, apart from making a rather long list of observations and trying, as Andrew suggested, to describe what I think I saw, I’m really just saying “I don’t know”. I’m willing to accept that my intense engagement with this piece of theatre is merely a quirk of my character, and I’m not going to suggest that anyone who walked out at the interval (or wished they had) lacks any vital insight or understanding that I purport to possess. As a critic it is clearly not enough to simply shrug and say, unapologetically, “I just liked it”. But in my self-prescribed role as a spectator, perhaps for once that’s OK.