‘Bits and Bitterness’: Politics, Performance,
In Michael Boyd’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Troilus and Cressida, Act 5 begins as Achilles circles the stage, ritualistically scattering the blood and feathers of a large white chicken. He and Patroclus light incense and burn a little of the chicken blood in a metal bowl. The significance of the chicken is not immediately clear. It appears to have become something of a joke amongst the performing company, or at least for the stage manager who named 5.1 ‘Chicken Tonight’ in the prompt copy.2 During the regional tour of the production, the company dropped the dead chicken, or rather reduced it to the essential parts of blood, feathers and a single foot. How is the spectator to read the chicken, or its parts? The white feathers of cowardice are a recurring image in the production. Achilles’ generals
have scattered them earlier as part of their attempt to provoke him into rejoining the battle against Troy. So perhaps the sacrifice of a white-feathered chicken serves to emphasise Achilles’ defiance of Agamemnon and Ulysses. Or perhaps it is simply further proof of Achilles’ decadence: he refuses to fight because of a promise he has made to his female lover; here he is having spent a wild night in at his tent, sacrificing chickens with his male one, Patroclus, played by actress Elaine Pyke in the production’s only example of cross-gender casting.