Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare, directed by Gregory Doran, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Thursday 18 October and Wednesday 14 November 2018.
Reviewed by Peter Malin
All quotations from the play are from the 1987 New Penguin edition, ed. by R. A. Foakes
Academic theatre reviewing should sometimes, I think, consist of more than just an analysis of the complex negotiations between practitioners, text, space and audience. One’s response to a performance is partly framed within personal and social parameters that can profoundly affect the nature of the experience and the delicate balances of critical judgment. I was particularly aware of such considerations at the two performances I saw of Gregory Doran’s RSC production of Troilus and Cressida, first at the press night and later at the performance filmed and broadcast live to cinemas.
Troilus and Cressida is my favourite Shakespeare play – which is not to say it is necessarily his greatest. A case could be made, however, for its status as the playwright’s most experimental, linguistically knotty, intellectually dense, unconventionally structured and most cynical play. It’s certainly not easy, in any sense of the word. Not only does it begin ‘in the middle’ (Prologue, 28) but it ends there too, with neither the Trojan War nor the relationship of the eponymous lovers reaching a satisfying sense of dramatic closure. The Prologue throws us a challenge: ‘Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are’ (30), while the pox-riddled Pandarus, as Epilogue, instead of soliciting our willing applause, ‘bequeath[es]’ his ‘diseases’ not just to his fellow ‘traders in the flesh’ but, implicitly, to us all (5.10.47-57). Our expectations of plot, character, dramatic construction and genre are constantly thwarted. Hector, for example, presents to his family a powerful argument for not keeping Helen (in terms that ought surely to give pause to ardent Brexiteers): ‘thus to persist | In doing wrong extenuates not wrong, | But makes it much more heavy’ (2.2.187-89). With barely a pause for breath, he inexplicably abandons his carefully argued position with a casually insouciant ‘yet’, on the grounds that keeping Helen is ‘a cause that hath no mean dependence | Upon our joint and several dignities’ (2.2.190-94). This is just one of many surprises Shakespeare serves up in this startling play.
To this day, I regret passing up the opportunity to see John Barton’s seminal 1968 RSC production (the one with Alan Howard’s award-winning Achilles) on a school trip; as a sixth-former, I knew nothing of the play. Since then I have been fortunate (and sometimes unfortunate) enough to see many productions, the most memorable of which was still vividly in my mind as I took my seat for Doran’s press night. This was Sam Mendes’ astonishing 1990-91 version, which I was able to share with three separate groups of A Level students, once at the Swan and twice at the Barbican Pit. They were blown away, as I was, by a gripping, funny, lucid staging with an accomplished cast on top form, from Norman Rodway’s suavely lubricious Pandarus to Simon Russell Beale’s definitive Thersites and, on the second occasion at the Pit, Paterson Joseph triumphantly topping Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Troilus. This, then was part of the personal back-story underlying my anticipation of Doran’s production, which I was devoutly hoping would be as good as Mendes’. Inevitably it wasn’t, and though comparisons may be odious, they are largely unavoidable.
As for the social circumstances that coloured my response to this performance, these were entirely out of my control. Press nights invariably have an enjoyable buzz, combined, for me, with an inexplicable anxiety on behalf of the performers, as if I had directed the show myself: I am willing it to go well. On this occasion, in addition, immediately behind my front row seat in the upper circle was a large conglomeration of schoolgirls: sixth-formers, apparently, despite the evidence of their subsequent behaviour. Throughout the performance they whispered, muttered and giggled, undeterred by the glares and shushing of myself and others. Having worked out which characters were meant to be funny, they screamed with laughter every time they came on stage, regardless of the actual tone of the scene that was being played out. Oliver Ford Davies’s fine Pandarus, a role he had taken over in mid-rehearsals from Desmond Barrit, suffered particularly in this respect, so that his gradual transformation into the bitter, diseased old man of the Epilogue was greeted by these students with the same hilarity as his earlier lascivious relish in bringing the lovers together. They also responded to Achilles’ full-on kiss with Patroclus with disgusted disbelief, and to the performance of the deaf actress Charlotte Arrowsmith, signing her prophecies accompanied by unnerving screeches, with strident, contemptuous laughter which was repeated when Arrowsmith returned as Margarelon and spoke her few, brief lines. Were these students really part of the supposedly empathetic, culturally-sensitive, ‘woke’ millennial generation so regularly celebrated – and mocked – in the media? Whatever their group hysteria might signify – and where, by the way, were their teachers? – they significantly spoiled my enjoyment and appreciation of the performance, and became part of the reason I decided to see it again.
It would be unfair to offer a review of the production based on the press night performance, partly for the reasons outlined above and partly – spoiler alert – because when I returned to it four weeks later it had improved beyond measure. On press night it was spectacular but didn’t seem quite ready. Whatever the characteristic virtues and deficiencies of Doran’s productions, they are invariably lucid and superbly spoken, which was not the case on this occasion. Acting and staging seemed full of uncertainties, while Evelyn Glennie’s deafening percussive score often smothered the dialogue and some scenes, notably the single, crucial appearance of Helen (3.1), badly misfired. Never having seen Mad Max in any of its incarnations, I was nevertheless excited by the dystopian, steampunk vibe it lent to the concept: entirely appropriate to the play, I think. Though I know some people found the casting of women in conventionally male, not to say toxically masculine, roles problematic, for me it worked brilliantly since, with one exception, these performances were gripping and powerful. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was expecting the performance broadcast live to cinema audiences to be full of distractions. In the event, I barely registered the extensive paraphernalia of equipment and technicians, though in emptying a large section of the stalls of spectators it did leave an unresponsive hollow in the theatre’s communal, shared space. The actors, hyped up for both their extended cinema audience and their ‘recordation’ (5.2.118) for posterity, were more confident and assured than on press night, and the production seemed both tighter and clearer. Among the specific improvements I noted, this time from my front row seat in the main circle, were the cutting down of Cassandra’s unnerving screeches and the rebalancing of percussion and voice for Pandarus’s song, ‘Love, love, nothing but love’ (3.1.112-23), which had previously been a discordant, mismatched mess.
Niki Turner’s impressive set made a powerful impact even before the play started, with its enormous shipping containers ranged upstage and its vast, jangling mobile of mechanical components suspended centrally like some post-industrial reimagining of the starry vault of heaven and the music of the spheres. Through this descended, as the play began, a spherical cage containing Helen, as Prologue, and a sleepy Paris. In the opening speech, whose cynical tone often sees it assigned to Thersites, Daisy Badger’s incisive and challenging delivery, from her swaying, aerial prison, decisively repositioned the play’s viewpoint as that of female assertiveness in the face of masculine aggression. Nothing could have demonstrated this more eloquently than Helen’s insistence – to the comic disappointment of the strutting Greeks, noisily ‘disgorge[d]’ from their containers with all their ‘warlike fraughtage’ of motorbikes and weaponry – that the play would ‘[leap] o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils, | Beginning in the middle’ (Prologue, 12-13, 27-28). Badger’s Helen, unlike Paris, remained confined to her dangling cage on her subsequent appearances, both in her ‘official’ scene and in a brief incursion at the end to survey the unresolved tensions of the dramatic action. Ultimately, she remained as unknowable as the text suggests, a moral blank canvas on whom the other characters can daub their laudatory or derogatory judgments.
In other respects Doran’s stagecraft was more conventional, utilising the theatre’s vertical dimensions not just through the suspended cage, but in a rear-stage gantry rising and falling to suggest the walls of Troy, and the central trap deployed to good effect for raising scenic elements such as the Greeks’ improvised council table and the bed on which the lovers consummate their relationship. Thankfully, the play’s contradictions and distorted viewpoints were not complicated further by any fussy conceptual tinkerings, though in one razor-sharp interpolation we were shown Ulysses ruthlessly furthering his plan to urge Achilles back into action by shooting Patroclus in the back at the height of the battle.
Most of the performances were more than strong enough to do justice to both play and production. Gavin Fowler’s Troilus, possibly the most contemptible of Shakespeare’s young male lovers, was suitably self-absorbed, callow and insensitive, often comically so, though his vocal projection was rather hit-and-miss. In his final, anguished analysis of Cressida’s impossibly bifurcated nature, however, Fowler movingly struck an altogether more passionate and tragic note. Amber James’s Cressida, a more complex and interesting character, managed to be both sexually knowing and unsure of herself, temperamentally wary of men yet easily won over by their persuasions. Having been abandoned and then reclaimed by her father (here her mother) Calchas, she finds herself mistrusted by Troilus, who cannot hide his lack of faith in her prospective loyalty to him; and disregarded by Pandarus, who is concerned only with Troilus’s emotional distress. Slavered over by the Greek generals on her arrival in their camp, she recovers sufficiently to humiliate Ulysses, avoiding his kiss with a linguistic dexterity that provokes his furious denunciation of her moral character (4.5.54-63). His judgment of Cressida is not Shakespeare’s, though our sympathy for her is tested by her subsequent acceptance of Diomedes as more than just her protector. James projected all these contradictions in a committed, clearly-spoken performance that aroused an empathetic understanding of the limited choices available to her, and a grudging admiration of how she forges some kind of agency in a threatening, macho world. In appropriating his own name as the pattern of truth, Troilus has left Cressida no option but to position herself as the embodiment of falsehood, however hard she tries to qualify this with an ‘if’ (see 3.2.156-94).
Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida are far from being the central focus of the play that bears their names, functioning merely as one component in a carefully-calibrated ensemble piece. In this production the Greeks, a ragbag army of arrogant egoists, were more interesting than the Trojans, who were often difficult to distinguish from each other. In the Trojan council scene, for example, it took a while to identify Troilus among his debating brothers, and Daniel Hawksford’s well-spoken Hector only gradually emerged as the principled but ethically-conflicted warrior whose name is so often invoked in the play. Amanda Harris gave much greater individuality to Aeneas, though she could have made more of the character’s archaically chivalric language.
On the Greek side, Suzanne Bertish, making a welcome return to the RSC, presented a strongly-spoken, posturing Agamemnon, fully deserving of the mockery (s)he aroused from the other characters; Jim Hooper was both comic and creepy as a decrepit Nestor; and Theo Ogundipe was a towering Ajax, self-admiring and stupid but movingly confounding expectation in his brief eulogy on Hector’s reported death at the hands of Achilles: ‘If it be so, yet bragless let it be; | Great Hector was a man as good as he’ (5.9.5-6). Andy Apollo and James Cooney were strikingly partnered as Achilles and Patroclus, with Clooney touchingly conveying both his love for Achilles and his awareness that he deserved better than to be merely his ‘masculine whore’ (5.1.17). Andrew Langtree’s Menelaus was reduced to a comic idiot, the utterly inarticulate butt of everyone’s contempt, while Daniel Burke’s Diomedes was an arrogant opportunist, no more deserving of Cressida’s love than Troilus.
At the dramatic centre of the Greek camp, Shakespeare places two characters of singular intelligence, the politician Ulysses and the railing cynic Thersites. As the former, Adjoa Andoh played effectively against the text with an active, physical, gestural performance, while carving out the complex arguments articulated in her speeches with both passion and clarity. As Thersites, however, the diminutive Sheila Reid, a scruffy little puppet, failed to get across her outpourings of bile, the witty vigour of the language lost somewhere between inadequate projection and a largely incomprehensible Scottish accent, leaving a gaping hole in the play. Where Simon Russell Beale had been the star turn of Mendes’ production, Reid was merely a puzzling irrelevance. She may, of course, have come across differently to cinema audiences viewing the filmed performance.
Ultimately, however, Shakespeare’s astonishing play won out, so that the disappointment I felt on press night, partly engendered by the surrounding teenage distractions, was recrafted into a sense of genuine theatrical excitement, and an appreciative admiration for Doran and (most of) his company.