Troilus And Cressida – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Peter Stein

Company: Edinburgh InternationalFestival in association with the RSC

Venue: RST

Date: Saturday 9th September 2006

This was the clearest production of this play I have ever seen, which is partly why I enjoyed it so much. I could tell who all the characters were, the pace of the dialogue was slowed to match the pace of the scene changes, so I could hear almost every word, and the performances themselves were excellent.

Some scene changes were a bit too slow, especially the final change, moving the big wall forward and then tilting it to create a massive ramp on which all the fighting could take place. Having said that, I liked all the set designs, and enjoyed the use of the wall, so I’ll excuse the time it took to move it. The only thing that didn’t work for me – nearly made me laugh out loud – was the two tents (half tents, as it turned out), floating across the stage to join together as Cressida’s new home – a sort of camping ballet. It didn’t help that we could clearly see the scene changers working really hard to keep them on course. If they could have tightened up on this, and speeded up the mechanical bits, the whole play would have been quicker. But as I said, the tempo of the play was set by these changes, and it was good that there were no awkward changes of pace – just a good steady walk rather than a canter.

The only down side was that some of the staging didn’t use the RST stage very well. For most of the first half, the action took place not on the thrust, not even in front of the arch, but in the middle or rear of the stage. In an auditorium like this, that’s normally dramatic suicide, but this production just managed to get away with it. Several of the actors had done seasons here before, and obviously knew the problems, as they were noticeably better at projecting than the others. Even so, the change in volume and energy was evident on those few occasions when actors came further forward and inhabited the foreground of the stage. As Achilles’ and Ajax’s tents were on either side of the thrust, the Greeks tended to be further forward anyway, and for most of the second half the position was reversed, with most of the action taking place near the front.

Despite this, I enjoyed the production enormously. I could make out so much more, and in seeing the characters and their relationships more clearly, I found a lot of new ideas and awarenesses buzzing through my brain – just what I like when watching Shakespeare.

This production makes it abundantly clear that the play is about “war and lechery”. The men’s costumes were obligingly skimpy, which was no hardship, and for once Troilus didn’t spring from the lovers’ bed partially dressed (yum). Helen and Paris had a longer romp in their suspended bed than was strictly necessary to set the scene, and Pandarus’ arrival didn’t slow them down all that much. When Troilus and Cressida finally get together, without having exchanged a word beforehand, Pandarus is urging them to get to the sex straightaway – no conversation, no getting to know each other, just snogging and fucking. As an early attempt at a dating agency, Pandarus sucks. He obviously took this approach to his own relationships as well, because by the end of the play he’s riddled with all the diseases that sex can provide.

Anyway, the young lovers’ relationship doesn’t last because Cressida is swapped for Antenor. This is an obstacle few lovers would overcome. Romeo and Juliet had it easy by comparison (and I saw a lot of Romeo and Juliet in this romance, too, especially in Cressida’s concern about expressing her love too soon and too openly, just as Juliet regrets that Romeo has overheard her declaration of love). I noticed that Troilus, even though he’s not happy to lose her to the Greeks, doesn’t kick up much of a fuss with his father about the exchange. This is the boy who was effectively pleading Paris’ case earlier, when Priam was consulting his sons over what to do with Helen. Then, he was all for keeping Helen, for honour’s sake. I ask myself, if he really loved Cressida, wouldn’t he have put up more of a fight? Re-reading his arguments to Priam, many of the lines could be applied equally well to his relationship with Cressida – “O theft most base, that we have stolen what we do fear to keep!” If he prizes Antenor more highly than Cressida, so much for staying faithful.

Cressida was excellently performed. It’s a difficult part, as it’s not clear why she appears to transfer her affections to Diomedes. Is she just being pragmatic? Has she actually realised that there are other men in the world? Is she just in despair and turning to whoever shows her kindness or seems to want her? As I saw it, this production has the courage to show her as a woman who doesn’t stay faithful to one man. It happens. Get over it. There’s so much emphasis on romantic love in Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) (and earlier writers) (and later writers, come to that) that it’s a relief that one of them has finally come out of the closet and just shown what can happen between men and women.

Troilus reminded me so much of Romeo, going off in a tantrum because he can’t have the Cressida of his imaginings – true, faithful, pure, chaste. It’s debatable whether he actually stays faithful or not. He’s certainly out of love with her in this production – in the closing scene, Pandarus brings Cressida on stage to offer her to Troilus and he rejects her. She stumbles off, Troilus is killed immediately afterwards, leaving Pandarus to speak the closing lines. The introduction of Cressida at this point is an invention, not found in any edition I looked at, but it does make a good point.

I saw the connections between Thersites and Pandarus too. Pandarus is Thersites in the making (if he lives long enough). Both were well played. I’ve never seen a ‘cuddly’ Thersites, but even so, this one was more repellent than most. His commentaries on the action were apt and intelligible for once, even if they were a bit repetitive. Pandarus was wonderfully lecherous and voyeuristic – getting (almost) as much pleasure from his niece’s sexual initiation as if he’d done it himself, a strange counterpoint to the nurse in Romeo and Juliet. In fact, it occurred to me that Troilus and Cressida is Romeo and Juliet’s negative image – they start together with family support, then end up on opposite sides of a warring divide.

A few more points. The helmets the Trojans wore muffled their speech a bit. Menelaus was nicely bumbling – the mandatory cuckold. I really liked the procession of men with Pandarus identifying them for Cressida (and us). I liked the way they posed – Hector very manly – and the way Pandarus mistakes Troilus, who’s dragging himself along. Although this was funny, I wasn’t keen overall on making Troilus so wimpish. OK, he’s in love, but he sometimes comes across as an ineffectual boy, not the strong warrior he appears to be from other reports. Also his words are given weight during the Helen debate, so he’s obviously not just a wimp.

Finally, this production gave full weight to the warfare elements, so for once the title characters almost take a back seat.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King John – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Josie Rourke

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th September 2006

I found a lot of this terribly dreary, and could hardly keep my eyes open. The Swan felt very stuffy and I longed for a breath of air. The repetitive wordiness of the play just started to wash over me, and there wasn’t enough business and action to keep my attention. Like the bastard Philip, dubbed Sir Richard, I became frustrated that nothing was going on.

This was a disappointment, as much of the cast are also in Much Ado, which was excellent. This is not a criticism of the actors, as they were giving perfectly good performances – the production just didn’t have that sparkle about it. The bastard was definitely the best role, and Joseph Millson got a good deal of the humour out of the part. In fact, I thought there was more humour in his performance, if only the audience would have appreciated it better. Maybe it wasn’t so much a leaden production as a leaden audience. But I have seen it done better, especially the Cardinal. It’s as if the cast haven’t yet found out what a good play it can be.

Good points? The bastard, desperate for a fight, constantly being frustrated by all the peace treaties that get agreed! His comments on the “wooing” between Blanche and the Dauphin were entertaining. Blanche was good – it’s a small part, but she made her presence felt. As she was talking about her divided loyalties pulling her in two different directions, Eleanor and the Dauphin were actually holding a hand each – a human tug-o-war.

Not so good points: Constance’s grief at losing her son did go on a bit.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – September 2006

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Marianne Elliot

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 8th September 2006

For the first half, I felt this was the best ever production of anything I’d ever seen, anywhere. I was going to revise my star ratings to give this eleven! Then the second half opened with Dogberry, and the soufflé collapsed. To be fair, this was one of the better Dogberry’s I’ve seen, so it didn’t collapse far, and I would still recommend everybody on the planet to see this production at least sixteen times before they die.

To start with, all the dialogue was delivered so clearly, and with such good understanding of what was being said, that I understood the play far better than I ever have before, and I got all of the jokes, which is no mean feat. The setting worked brilliantly. Pre-Castro Cuba, with lots of heat, bars and cigars, the air was steamy long before the lovers got going. We were entertained to some Latin-American music from the band before the start, and there was plenty more during the show as well.

I can’t possibly note up everything that happened, so here’s a jumble of thoughts and memories. Benedick as a moving pot plant – totally over the top and brilliantly done. We laughed so much at this, that the following eavesdropping scene, with Beatrice, felt a bit flatter, but Beatrice managed to go one better than Benedick and actually creep right up to the bench that Ursula was sitting on. Ursula even put her hand, accidentally, on Beatrice’s, and had to pretend not to notice. Before that, we had a slightly predictable joke when Beatrice moved next to the Vespa parked on stage, and naturally set off the horn. Little bit obvious, but still enjoyable. My favourite part was at the beginning of that scene, when Beatrice enters from the side, and runs along the front of row A to hide at the back, hopefully not treading on anyone’s toes.

Benedick winking at the Duke to get him to insist on Benedick revealing all about Claudio. Borachio’s interest in Hero, causing his jealousy and hence the assistance he gives to Don John. Borachio actually spends time with Hero, which we don’t see Claudio do till after the Duke’s done the deal.

The tempo eases down in the second half, partly because Dogberry is played at a slow pace, and partly because the story gets a lot darker. I realised that what brings Beatrice and Benedick together in this section is the seriousness of what happens to the people they care about – they’re not able to joke about this stuff, and so they’re able to express their truer feelings about each other as well. Once the problems are resolved, they’re back to sniping at each other again, but too late to deny their feelings.

The crunchy floor isn’t particularly noisy in this production – must be the soles of their shoes. Still sticks to everything, though.

Dogberry was OK, making him better than most I’ve seen. I even found some of his jokes funny. Verges we were already familiar with from a couple of seasons at Chichester, and I enjoyed what there was of the part. The watch were good, hiding out amongst the audience to overhear Borachio and Conrad, but on the whole I preferred the YPS watch – they made much more of them, although it was a shorter version.

The second half was more moving. I always feel for Hero in her suffering after the false accusation. This time, Margaret, realising what she’s been involved in, runs from the church, really upset. They made a lot of some pearls which Claudio gives Hero, and to my mind, Hero was just a bit too interested in them rather than the man. Not sure this is going to be a happy marriage for Claudio (but then, does he deserve one?)

Masks for the first ball – the Prince has a lion mask, Benedick a monkey, and Claudio a clown, all very appropriate.

One quibble about the scene with Benedick in his floral shirt – it’s clear he’s changed, and shaved his beard, so perhaps the Prince could have played it up as a bit more of a joke – there’s no ‘discovery’ of the changes, so no need to play it straight.

Wonderful use of a megaphone to bid Benedick “come in to supper”, especially as Beatrice is standing about a foot in front of him at the time. His reaction to this summons was wonderful too – his conviction that there’s a double meaning in her words was beautifully insane and another one of the many funny moments in this production.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me