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  • Culture Clash: What the Wooster Group revealed about the RSC (and British theater hegemony) in Troilus & Cressida.
  • Benjamin Fowler

If there be rule in unity itself, This was not she. O madness of discourse, That cause sets up with and against itself! Bi-fold authority, where reason can revolt Without perdition, and loss assume all reason Without revolt. This is, and is not, Cressid!


I saw this amazing thing that Kate Valk did with their method. She started looking at Cressida via an interview with Björk. It was fed to her through an earpiece, but she could also see it on a TV. She repeats Björk’s mannerisms and mimics her accent, and then she goes seamlessly into a speech from Cressida. Somebody was interviewing Björk, so when Kate was doing Björk she was talking to one of us, and it was like she was having a conversation with us, really talking to us. Then she would break into this Cressida speech. It really was engaging. She was doing about five things at once. She was playing. Something worked . . . something let them in.

— Paul Ready

Paul Ready was among a group of British actors representing the Royal Shakespeare Company, led by the director Rupert Goold, flown to New York to test the viability of a collaboration with the Wooster Group as part of the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival. Observing them rehearse, Ready was struck by key characteristics of the Group’s method: “inappropriate” combinations of material (Björk and Shakespeare) jostled for attention; technology and mediated material grated against” liveness” as theater’s distinctive feature, yet focused actor and spectator on the present [End Page 207] moment; performers negotiated a multi-sensual reality (in-ear feeds, televised material), mimicking the traditional receiving-and-filtering role of the spectator. The British actors even explored the Wooster métier themselves, screening Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy (2004) on monitors around the Performing Garage and imitating Brad Pitt or Eric Bana while delivering Shakespeare’s text. Ready intuitively connected with the Wooster method; for him, their seminal obsession with the live “copying” of recorded material somehow created the conditions for Valk, the Wooster Group performer tackling Cressida in that rehearsal, to “break into” Shakespeare’s text, and Ready to engage with Valk’s performance.

In late August 2012, I watched the result of these workshops at the Riverside Studios in London, where the Wooster Group applied similar methods to Troilus & Cressida alongside an RSC contingent now directed (because of Goold’s film commitments) by the RSC’s resident playwright Mark Ravenhill.1 Split along Trojan and Greek lines, the companies had rehearsed independently on either side of the Atlantic, and by this time the Group had abandoned Björk in favor of a range of cultural “found objects” that superimposed the text with “indigenous” themes; the dialogue of Chris Eyre’s Native American drama Smoke Signals (1998) and movement from the Inuit film Atanarjuat, or The Fast Runner (2001) guided the actors’ vocals and gestures as Björk had done in rehearsal. The most visible British reception to the Wooster contribution, as expressed in reviews and walkouts, was bafflement mixed with boredom and anger.2 Some critics tried to dissect their use of interpolated cultural references; many simply chastised the Group for willful obscurity and a lack of technical ability.

Of course, reception is shaped by a spectator’s experiences and background, and the response to this Troilus & Cressida brought, as I hope to show, cultural and artistic controversies into sharp focus. In my own case, I came to the production having recently worked with the RSC as an assistant director on two equally high-profile but very different experiments, one that had been highly praised—Gregory Doran’s scholarly-creative attempt to reconstruct Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Cardenio—while the other, the playwright Anthony Neilson’s revival of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, had provoked press controversies of its own.3 Having recently worked too on Shakespeare with actors in Japan, the problems and possibilities of cultural exchange via the—classical to some, alien to others—repertoire were in the foreground of my thinking...


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pp. 207-233
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