It’s hard to imagine, but it’s been 42 years (!) since I last saw a production of Troilus and Cressida. Back in 1976, young Master Chrisparkle got on a train to London to see the National Theatre production at the Young Vic, directed by Elijah Moshinsky, starring Denis Quilley, Roland Culver, Robert Eddison, Mark McManus and Simon Ward. Good grief, all those actors are dead now!
This is one of Shakespeare’s hard-to-categorise plays. Traditionally it was always lumped into the comedies, because it’s not a tragedy and it doesn’t fit the usual definition of a history, as it doesn’t concern a British king. But it doesn’t sit comfortably as a comedy either, and the temptation has always been to pretend that it doesn’t exist. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, there were no recorded performances of this play between 1734 and 1898; that’s pretty extraordinary, considering it’s by our Immortal Bard. Along with Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, it’s now considered a “problem play”, which makes it sound like it’s going to be hard work to appreciate.
But that’s not the case at all. The excellent programme notes (the RSC always do great programmes but this one is outstanding) include extracts from the late John Barton’s old directorial notes from previous productions, and he points out that the strength of this play is in its sheer bloody-mindedness not to fall into any categories. The characters contradict themselves; the relationships between them change unexpectedly, with neither rhyme nor reason; it doesn’t succumb to any set pattern; in fact, it’s just like real life. So rather than trying to make it a one size fits all kind of play, celebrate the fact that it just goes its own way.
Gregory Doran’s new production does precisely that, although he has made one imposition on the play – to cast it 50:50 between men and women. As a result, we have a female Agamemnon, Ulysses, Aeneas, Calchas and Thersites, as well as women playing traditionally male servant roles. In one respect, it makes hardly any difference at all; a military woman is pretty much the same as a military man when uniformed and concentrating on strategies and tactics. In another respect, it does shed different light upon the play; it makes you see something familiar with new eyes, creating an excitement and a freshness that you might not otherwise have expected. This is one of many innovations in this production that works really well.
It’s a rewarding, surprising play. It deals with themes of honour and betrayal, order and disorder, even celebrity versus mundanity. Achilles, the celebrity warrior, is sick of fighting and just wants to lounge about with his “masculine whore” Patroclus; his reputation sullied, not so much by his debatable sexuality as by what Agamemnon describes him, “in self-assumption greater than in the note of judgement”. It’s only when his Greek warrior colleagues play a trick on him, pretending not to notice him, that his vanity is offended; and not till Patroclus is killed that he is spurred into action.
The Greeks and the Trojans are locked in a military and political impasse, causing them to bicker between themselves, but showing amity between the two parties. “This is the most despiteful-gentle greeting, the noblest-hateful love that e’er I heard of” says Paris, as Aeneas and Diomed confer amicably. Before Hector and Ajax can fight, they choose peace. “The obligation of our bloods forbids a gory emulation ‘twixt us twain”, says Hector; thus honour prevents him from surely killing Ajax. Yet, Achilles, with gross dishonour, sees Hector killed, not by his own hand in glorious war, but, ironically, outsourced to the Myrmidons while Hector is unarmed.
Plonked in the middle of all this is the growing love between Trojan prince Troilus and Cressida, niece to Lord Pandarus, who serves as something of a Courtly Fool. He moves heaven and earth to get the two together, but after one night of connubial bliss, fate separates them; they both, unhappily, accept the fact that the politics of the state are bigger than both of them. They vow to stay true to each other, but that doesn’t last long; another excellent example of how the characters of this play don’t perform as you’d expect. The misleading title suggests that the love affair between the two will be the most important element of this play; but that’s simply not so.
This is a lively, funny, and extremely watchable production with some very creative and entertaining highlights. Oliver Ford Davies’ Pandarus’ hilarious running commentary, explaining to Amber James’ Cressida the benefits (or otherwise) of each of the warriors who parade past them like some military Mr Universe pageant, works brilliantly well. His fussing around Troilus and Cressida’s morning after arrangements, checking for signs of consummation on the sheets, is also superbly done. Pitching Sheila Reid’s diminutive and wretched Thersites side by side with the tall and fit Achilles or Ajax also gives some great physical comedy moments. And I loved the play on words with “The Trojans’ trumpet”.
And then there is the innovative involvement of having Dame Evelyn Glennie as the production composer. If you know Dame Evelyn’s work, it’ll come as no surprise that you can expect percussion – and a lot of it. That’s great for the war scenes, as the drums suggest marching armies and the metallic clashes represent sword on shield or armour against armour. Softer motifs also provide incidental music for some of the characters; again the programme notes tell us how she has orchestrated the two central lovers differently. And no opportunity is missed to fill in any details suggested by the text; when Pandarus is irritated by the sound of music, he’s not the only one. But it’s true, sometimes the excitement and creativity of the background music can overwhelm what’s happening on stage, and we found it difficult to make out some of Ms Reid’s bon mots as she observes the vanities of the warrior classes. That’s a shame, because she clearly gives it some suitably savage characterisation. As the other Fool in this play, the crude and visceral Thersites provides a lot of important context; but it’s no good if you can’t hear it.
There are long sequences between the Greek warlords that are very wordy, particularly in the first half of the play. To make them more palatable, Gregory Doran has pantomimed-up the characters into a larger-than-life presence. Thus we have Suzanne Bertish’s Agamemnon, all swirling hair and fighting talk, rather like Anna Soubry MP on acid; Andrew Langtree’s Neanderthal Menelaus, constantly interrupted by Agamemnon to stop him from saying something foolish; Adjoa Andoh’s super-intelligent and manipulative Ulysses; Theo Ogundipe’s estuary Ajax, just about stringing a sentence together; Andy Apollo’s languid, too cool for school Achilles; and Jim Hooper’s dirty-old-man Nestor, taking a peck on the cheek with Cressida too far, to the disgusted, retching reaction of the audience. This outrageous, tongue-in-cheek approach to the characters oughtn’t to work; but it does, tremendously. These are all fantastic performances.
Gavin Fowler gives his Troilus a nice mix of nobility and naivete; hopelessly hapless with his chat-up lines but dignified in his deference to the instructions of King Priam and valorous in battle. Amber James also invests Cressida with some gutsy personality, not backward in coming forward when Troilus is too tongue-tied to step up to the mark, and suitably flexible when she has to hold her own in the Greek camp.
A couple of things puzzled me; I didn’t understand the significance of the weird collection of pots and pans and old bits of car that suspended from the ceiling, and shook clankingly every so often; and I wasn’t sure why Helen and Paris made their appearances from inside a pod that dangled down to earth, like a celestial conservatory. But John Barton’s notes had already guided me into not expecting to understand everything.
It’s a thoroughly entertaining production, and if you haven’t seen Troilus and Cressida before, this is a delightfully accessible and stimulating experience, that I’d totally recommend. Terrific performances from Oliver Ford Davies, Suzanne Bertish, Theo Ogundipe and Adjoa Andoh make 3 hours 15 minutes go by remarkably quickly. At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 17th November – don’t miss it!
Production photos by Helen Maybanks