BWW Review: THE TROJAN WAR at Prague Shakespeare Company
The Trojan War: Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare, Modern English verse translation by Lillian Groag; The Trojan Women by Euripides, new English translation by Guy Roberts and Rebecca Greene Udden. Directed by Guy Roberts and Rebecca Green Udden.
Produced by Prague Shakespeare Company in association with Main Street Theater Company, Houston and supported by the Hitz Translation Project and Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Play On! -- Thirty-six Playwrights Translate Shakespeare. At the Estates Theatre, Prague, April 30, 2018.
Efforts to 'modernize' Shakespeare's words have proceeded apace more or less since Shakespeare wrote them. The theatre managers and printers who arranged and helped to first popularize the plays adapted the author's work freely; they fed the needs of the audience with bawdy asides, special effects, and music that overwhelmed the poetry. Later, and continuing up to the present day, this freedom was replaced by a form of canonization that drove Shakespeare production towards the black boxes, digital manipulation, and plain-speak to which we are now accustomed.
The first dramatization of the ten years' war between the Greeks and the city of Troy was produced in 1200 B.C., the latest (until now) in 2004. Many new scripts and screenplays (and many more wars) have come in the eons in between, and it can safely be said that neither the playwright Euripides (the author of 'The Trojan Women,' the first-mentioned work) nor the film director Wolfgang Peterson (the director of the latter) have come any closer to resolving the issue of why men fight, or depicting definitively how they love.
These two preoccupations take up the great bulk of the time in any version of this story, and no exception is made for the current one, titled 'The Trojan War' and premiering in Prague in the spring of 2018. The Prague Shakespeare Company, the Oregon Shakespeare Company, and the Main Street Theater Company of Houston are jointly producing this iteration. It is conceived as a trilogy, with 'The Iliad' played in one evening, and an only modestly clipped 'Troilus and Cressida' played with 'The Trojan Women' in another. This 'Troilus' is part of a project to 'translate' all of Shakespeare's plays into a modern vernacular.
One thing it is not is new, for people have been trying to update the stories of the Ancient Greeks for as long as the stories have existed.. Homer tried it out first, setting out (apparently for all time) the cast of characters - King Agamemnon, his soldier Achilles, Paris and Helen, and the quarreling gods Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, and Odysseus. These principals, so to speak, are backed up by an ever-varying arrangement of supporting characters that take turns across the centuries (but most recently in the last century) stepping forward and grabbing the reins of the story for their own, contemporary purposes.
Shakespeare's own take on the Trojan War debuted in 1602 but more or less disappeared thereafter. There are no recorded productions of 'Troilus and Cressida" from 1734 until 1898, but it has regularly appeared, in truncated or attenuated form, many times since. Since Shakespeare tackled the subject, it has served as the basis for both a musical comedy ('The Golden Apple', 1954) and an unadorned tragedy (at Ellen Stewart's La MAMA, 1974).
Beyond the stage, the gods and heroes of the Trojan War have turned up cultural settings as highbrow as Rupert Brooke's and W.H. Auden's poetry and James Joyce's novels, and as lowbrow as the Classics Illustrated comic books and recordings by pop stars like John Cale and Cream. Sword-fights and romance never go out of fashion. Limiting the discussion to stage versions of the story, what are the specific challenges which occur, how are they generally solved, and how are they specifically solved when put together in this unique production?
The greatest challenge, or at least the one that most directors intuitively accept, is relevancy. In 'Troilus,' for instance, the behavior is pointedly immoral and the endnote is disillusion, both unfortunately very modern attributes. Whether the warriors carry around cell-phones or, as in this Prague Shakespeare production, quite realistic-looking armor the need for (and problem with) appealing to the audience remain. For a great part of both play's production history - say, every century from the 16ththrough the 19th- the military political postures of Greece and Troy took precedent over the sexual ones. In the 20th(and now 21st) centuries, these relevancies have nearly been reversed.
But Shakespeare's plays, even when updated, need not struggle for relevancy. When, in the middle of a prophesy, Hector replies to Cassandra 'Does this sound like lunacy or foresight?' one can easily imagine the scene switched to an American Joint Chiefs meeting or an European Union roundtable. And with the 'Me Too' movement dominating conversations in the arts (and elsewhere) these days, telling this story from the women's point of view is important. As the co-director, Guy Roberts, pointed out, "the wonderful thing about Euripides story is that where 'Troilus and Cressida' is mostly focused on the male characters (with the exception of Cressida), 'The Trojan Women' is mostly focused on the women. So we get to experience the aftermath of the War through the eyes of Hecuba and her Trojan Women."
The next greatest remaining challenge beyond relevancy is language, both for Euripides and for Shakespeare. In the former case, we have to deal with an actual translation from the Greek; in the latter, a more conceptual one (although it appears that this most recent 'translation' of Shakespeare is aiming for a transformation greater than mere comprehensibility). The goal, at least for works staged in the past seventy or so years, is to avoid both the gutter of the vernacular (for example, Joseph Mankiewicz's 'Julius Caesar') and the numbing straightjacket of the literal (any unedited version of 'Hamlet').
The most successful productions steer smoothly down the middle of these approaches, laying down a cunning but relatively unobtrusive modern touch and using the author's own words in austere selection. Two examples, one on stage and one on film, come to mind: Peter Sellars' 'Tempest', and Jules' Dassin's 'A Dream Of Passion." In 'The Tempest," Sellars knitted his trademark tricks into a coherent, funny, and ultimately moving production; in 'A Dream Of Passion' Dassin used the ideas of a play within a play to make the story of Medea heartbreakingly up-to-date.
The Prague Shakespeare Company's solution is a little of "all of the above'; what it sacrifices to coherence it gains in originality. The two plays, written thousands of years apart, have been presented separately; no attempt is made to make the handful characters that appear in both plays complete any kind of an arc. A certain amount of settings and costuming is shared, but this seems to be a result of exigency and not conceptualism. The full casts of both plays are pooled, often bringing over three dozen people to the stage at a time.
On the page, 'Troilus' would seem a likely candidate for so-called translation. It is not one of the playwright's great accomplishments. According to the great Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom, 'Troilus and Cressida' nevertheless retreats from Shakespeare's greatest gift, his invention of the human. Something we cannot know drives him, in this play, against his own strength as a dramatist."
The results here, however, are muddled.The language veers from the literal to the vernacular; some speeches remain more or less as Shakespeare wrote them while others, particularly the shorter ones, strive for pop in the most up-to-date-sense. 'Here I come, dressed to kill' is one brief example; 'Kiss her, damn it!' is another. Character switch from saying 'Greet him not' to 'I'll go first' in a single scene, and lines like 'Go, Troilus, go' and 'I'm very rusty' clash with the elevated tone elsewhere.
Additionally, rough-hewn as it is, this attempt at updating the language does not carry forward into the staging. Most of the scenes, both comic and tragic, are presentational, with the speaker center, left, or right and the auditors grouped upstage or downstage like statues. This might be an improvement on the Attention Deficit Disorder-like capering of another Bloom - Orlando, in his 'Romeo and Juliet' - but it harks back to an earlier aspect of Shakespearean production, one with merits but hardly modern.
The stage includes a turntable, which makes switching between Greece and Troy a matter of mechanics, since the set - a construction site of steel bleachers and sheer green plastic sheeting - never changes. But Shakespeare himself is to blame for the weakness of the characters: many scenes are overwritten and overly long. This drives the serious drama into histrionics, and leaves the comic relief with nothing to relieve.
In this mash-up, 'The Trojan Women,' coming after the second intermission, fares better for being far shorter, for suffering less in 'translation', and for being focused on one story instead of at least three. Hecuba successfully dominates the action, as she should. But having only one wailing woman would have heightened the tragedy; a dozen women keening in tandem are distracting, not empathetic.
In the end, which comes after nearly four hours of trafficking, one is left with the certitude that many things -- corkscrews, zippers, and Shakespeare among them - are better left unimproved.