This collaboration between the RSC and the Wooster Group (co-directed by Mark Ravenhill for the RSC and Elizabeth LeCompte for the latter) strives to return us to the unstable and problematic text that Shakespeare produced and to use it to ask perceptive questions. This is a fiercely engaged, deeply knowledgeable, extremely intelligent, coolly outrageous piece of theatre.

Troilus and Cressida (c. 1602) is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays and relatively little read or performed. It is notoriously uneven in tone and style, deeply uncertain in genre (labelled a history play in the Quarto, but a tragedy in the First Folio), delighting/despairing in the contradictions that it finds in its intervention in the European Homeric tradition and the nature of war, and profoundly ambiguous and ambivalent in its point of view on almost every action and character in the play. If it is really a tragedy, then it defies convention and concludes as it begins, in media res, mired in the seventh, exhausting year of an interminable, brutal, stalemated and entropic war, with a living but disillusioned Troilus, and an embittered Pandarus looking to his future death and willing the audience his diseases.

The shocking and poor reviews that this production has engendered among many critics is perhaps unsurprising, as the radicalness of an RSC/Wooster group collaboration is an experiment in clearing the ground that denudes the play of much of the accumulated production history of nostalgia for chivalric war-time heroism and pseudo-Homeric nobility. It perhaps isn’t only the Wooster Group’s avant-garde directorial practice that has led critics to see the production as a messy, incoherent failure, but the accuracy of this in production, in terms of Shakespeare’s text.

A simple, gleaming, reflective, metal wall that can be spun serves to both link and divide the Trojan scenes from those that belong to the Greeks, as ambiguous in its way as a two-way mirror, since when it spins the world divides, becoming either Greek or Trojan, but it’s the flimsiest of divisions. Shakespeare recognised that, if Ajax and Hector are cousins, and Achilles is to marry Polyxena, Trojan King Priam’s daughter, then it is as much a civil war within the wider Greek world as a foreign war; a collision of worlds, but also a collision within a world. LeCompte and Ravenhill have ingeniously kept the Greeks and the Trojans both as separate and as related as possible, undermining from both directions the force of binary demarcation (Shakespeare’s noble Trojans and his shrewdly modern, pragmatic Greeks).

They are related because, apart from the common language and Shakesperean heritage they speak and share, this is clearly the Wooster Group’s white Americans as Trojans, deliberately and problematically impersonating Native Americans unsuccessfully, and the RSC’s contemporary, multi-cultural British as the Greeks. They are separated stylistically (and indeed theatrically) in terms of acting technique: the simulacra of Native American life conjured up by the Wooster Group is unconvincing in terms of realism; there is a Disneyesque, luridly painted tee-pee, plastic campfire props and surreal, imitative by bricolage Native American costumes created by Dutch artist Folkert de Jong for the Trojan warriors that incorporate garishly coloured, ruined Greek statutory made from Styrofoam as armour. There are multiple levels of irony and perhaps something rather coolly Brechtian (in terms of the use of alienation/estrangement) in the Wooster Group’s technique.

The Trojans come closer to noble primitives compared to the Greeks' modernity, vanquished after ten years by the guileful, clever scheme of Ulysses’ Trojan horse rather than rightful war. It is always easy to feel sorry for the defeated and extinct, especially when you narrate the tale of their demise. Shakespeare’s text recognises such views, but doesn’t simply endorse them. This is epitomised by Thersites' bitter observations, such as 'war and lechery confound all'. He demonstrates the play’s cynicism towards the presumed nobility of war, the fantasies of masculine honour, the idealistic pretensions of true love and the retrospective fetishisation of the vanquished by the victors.

The Wooster Group’s staging of white Americans as native Americans is forcefully contradictory and unsuccessful, and reaches levels of irony similar to their use of a deconstructed contemporary Blackface aesthetic in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. This demonstrates white America's troubled identity crisis towards the old world, reactivated by playing with the RSC (what does American identity mean when faced with genuine, old world Britishness?), and as Phillip Deloria suggested controversially in Playing Indian, there has always been a curious need for white Americans to play at being Indians in order to define what being American means. But the native Americans to contemporary America are also somewhat like the vanquished Trojans, praised for their noble savage, quasi-chivalric nature, no more so when subject to the attempted genocide by the more civilised white Americans during the wars of the American West.

The Wooster’s Group's use of on-screen visual cues from mediatised representations of native American life (sometimes more or less authentic, including contemporary Canadian films about the Inuit), as well as microphones that flatten out their voices and make their pseudo-Native American accents and delivery otherworldly (helped by frequent whoops and fragments of war dances) not only undermine their own representations, but foreground the ironic consequences of this playing of Native Americans. In contrast, during Greek scenes the screens simply reflected the voices by sine waves, a telling metaphor for the Greek’s presence, who wrote the defeated Trojans into the history we now know (and, perhaps in a broadly similar way to how European, white Americans have largely written the native Americans into history). There is something very American about the Wooster’s Group’s interests, but it is after all part of World Shakespeare.

Ari Fliakos’ Hector is an impressively noble but also sweetly child-like Hector, able to see the absurdity of a war over Helen but so addicted to conventions of honour that he cannot change his course; despite his displays of chivalry, he will meet a distinctly inglorious end, slaughtered while taking off his armour by Achilles and the latter’s Myrmidons. Greg Mehrten’s Pandarus is as an oily, unctuous, middle-aged fixer who delights in his ability to manipulate others. Screen star Marin Ireland is a sparky, vivacious Cressida who seems enigmatic in her decisions, easily slipping from Trojan to stand in Greek, but also aware that, as a lone woman, she must do what she needs to survive in the Greek encampment. While Scott Shepherd’s Troilus does seem rather old for the part of a teenager, there is something disconcerting about how well he plays his adolescent role, as lethargic and histrionic as any idealised male courtly lover.

The RSC’s Greeks are dressed, in the main, in British military uniforms: the maroon berets of the parachute regiment (albeit with feathers), and British pattern camoflague, reminding us deliberately of current wars in which Anglo-American engagement has been the focus. The camp looks more like a military field hospital in which despair and ill-health have set in. The production manages to offer multiple meanings: gesturing to recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously allowing the Wooster Group to look at specifically American issues of their vanquished Other.

Troilus and Cressida revived in popularity with the aftermath of World War I and the resulting mood of cynicism, social turmoil and nihilistic questioning of society. The ever so versatile Zubin Varla’s Thersites is the superb voice of extreme cynicism and the blackest of comedy, a fool driven mad by the war he lives in, played as a northern transvestite double-amputee in a wheelchair. This is less meaningless when one recalls this is a play stuck in endless, pointless, interminable war, and Thersites despair and madness echoes our lengthy Afghanistan involvement, where the ‘noble’ values with which the war began appear increasingly, in the public mood, to be lost. The complexities of gender and sexuality in the play abound among the Greeks, a multi-cultural cast (like Britain’s own current army) exemplifying and undermining the contradictions of the Greeks' vision of vibrant masculinity as opposed to what they see as the overly female, over-courteous Trojans. Joe Dixon’s muscled, tattooed narcissist Achilles spends most of the play in a towel, until he dons a beautiful scarlet dress to go out to fight, defeating Hector ignobly. Patroculus is a fetching but still war-like figure in his high-heels. Scott Handy’s Ulysses certainly speaks his verse well, but the performance suggests what an exhausted, crafty politician he is: perhaps in his own way his pragmatism is as cynical as Thersites'. Does he really believe in Danny’s Webb’s rather pompous, aloof and detached Agamemnon, or is all that matters now to win the war, at any cost?

Although its angry nihilism, theatrical complexity and lack of prettified pseudo-chivalry may not be to everyone’s aesthetic taste, there is no doubting that it deserves to be seen as a seminal production that returns us to one of Shakespeare’s strangest, most contradictory works and the many meanings it might hold for us.

Troilus and Cressida, at Riverside StudiosSteven Barfield reviews Troilus and Cressida, an RSC/Wooster Group co-production at the Riverside Studios.5