By William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Stein
Company: Edinburgh InternationalFestival in association with the RSC
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