By William Shakespeare
Directed by Declan Donnellan
Company: Cheek By Jowl
Venue: Barbican Theatre
Date: Saturday 31st May 2008
The set was the same basic layout as for Boris Godunov, with five strips of some marbled spongy fabric laid lengthways down the stage. (I checked this in the interval – it felt like textured paper, like heavy wallpaper, but from the way it hung, I’m not sure exactly what it was. The black stuff underneath seemed to be the spongy bit.) To our right, the outer four strips curved up to the ceiling, while the fifth appeared to be cut off and lifted up to create a canopy over the entrance formed by the gap. To our left, the central three strips formed right angles and rose vertically, but were staggered to create gaps. Colour wise, they were a marbled cream. Four grey stools/tables placed in what might loosely be called the corners of the stage completed the layout at the beginning. As it turned out, these larger stools were made up from four individual stools, and these were moved around, turned over, and even cleaned (by Thersites) as required.
Now I should mention here that I can only report on the first half of this production, and then only on the parts that I was actually awake for. It’s a play with difficult language to get across, the afternoon was humid, and the Barbican facilities and management not up to the standard of old, although the temporary seating was much more comfortable than I remember (which doesn’t actually help with the snoozing option, of course). For that matter, the production itself wasn’t up to much, with just a few interesting points which I will record below, and with me being well into my menopausal phase, a little thing like being told I couldn’t take our ice creams into the auditorium was enough to put me off the second half. I decided I could snooze just as well in the foyer as in my seat (I hadn’t realised that drum practice was on the agenda), but I insisted that Steve sit through the rest of it and report back (see below).
So, what was the production actually like? Helen herself gave us the prologue, although as I didn’t know it was her at the time I can’t tell if that had any significance. She walked down the stage, from left to right as we saw it, before speaking. She looked gorgeous in a white strapless gown, fitted to just below the hips with flounces to the floor. Long white gloves completed the outfit, and it was clear we were in for modern dress. The prologue goes into some detail on place names that didn’t mean much to me, and there were a number of soldiers who arrived on stage around whom she was delivering her speech – I don’t remember who they were, presumably generic soldiers, although they may have been meant to represent actual characters. I suspect not, though, as later on they took the trouble to bring characters on to the stage when they were being talked about, so we would know who was who; if they were meant to be doing that during the prologue it needs some work.
The opening discussion between Troilus and Pandarus was a bit dull. The characters’ motivations weren’t at all clear to me. We did get to see Cressida during this, and as Troilus and Pandarus talked, she and another actor mimed her father’s leaving, which did make her situation painfully clear. After Troilus leaves, Cressida then talks with Pandarus. He tries to persuade her to fancy Troilus, while she focuses all her attention on Hector. Both of these actors come on stage, Hector first, and they do some sword practice while the other two talk. Then there’s the parade of Trojan nobility, which Pandarus hopes will turn Cressida’s head. Various people come onto the stage from our left and, in the case of smartly dressed Paris and the beautiful Helen, accept the crowd’s enthusiastic applause like any pair of self-regarding vacuous celebrities (boy that menopause is really kicking in now). I was distracted during this bit as someone had been let in late (despite emails being sent out warning that this wouldn’t be allowed, so be here on time or miss out!), and he was having a discussion with the people right behind us about where his seat was. After a ridiculously long time, he moved to a vacant seat in row B, and we were finally able to focus back on the play.
Pandarus was on the steps to our left, Cressida on the steps far right, so they had their private chat talking loudly across the stage at each other. This was fine, as it meant I could hear perfectly, not always easy with this sort of layout. The soldiers who entered not only accepted the cheers from the crowd, they stood on the stools to give the masses a chance to properly admire them. Troilus in particular came across as quite wimpish in this company, but still managed to snaffle a stool ahead of Hector. One point to note here was that I wouldn’t have known from this scene that Cressida was actually dead keen on Troilus herself, and was only pretending to prefer Hector to wind Pandarus up. I mean that both in terms of her behaviour while talking with Pandarus, and from the little speech she has at the end of the scene, telling all to the audience. Good job I know the play.
The next scene was presumably cut to the bone. It’s often very tedious, and this version wasn’t the best nor the worst. Various Greek warlords strut their stuff, then Aeneas arrives with a challenge from Hector aimed at luring Achilles into single combat. There’s potential to show a lot about the relationships between the Greek leaders, but either this was lacking, or I missed it because the width of the stage meant that too many actors were effectively out of sight for large parts of the scene.
Achilles was being played more like a bureaucrat than anything else. He handed out papers to support his argument about the divided nature of the Greek forces, and was remarkably diffident about making his points. Apparently he thought his silver tongue wasn’t as effective as a spreadsheet with accompanying footnotes. He also laid out a couple of photos of Ulysses and Patroclus in compromising intimacy (they were too small to get any detail, sorry), but given the Greek attitudes to man on man action, I doubt that it’s the indecency that would figure in his argument so much as the waste of valuable fighting time (as recorded on the timesheets which this Ulysses has no doubt filed away meticulously in his tent).
One nice touch with this portrayal was the way Ulysses took the written challenge and started tinkering with it, reading it carefully and considering how to spin it to their advantage, i.e. to get Achilles out of bed and killing Trojans. The idea of Ulysses as a subtle Greek spin doctor has its attractions. Sadly the rest of his performance undermined the benefits, and the rest of the Greeks were unremarkable.
Now we get Thersites and the Greeks. At first I thought they’d cast a woman as Thersites, but once ‘she’ spoke I realised this is a tranny Thersites, all the more impressive because he/she’s done up in a blue boiler suit and wears rubber gloves. Admittedly the makeup and long plait help the female persona, but the voice is still too butch to mistake him for her. Imagine a bitter and rancorous Lily Savage dressing down as a caretaker, and if you haven’t fainted from shock you’ll have a pretty good idea of the character.
Ajax, that well-known cleaning fluid, would seem like an ideal companion for Thersites in this mode, but they just don’t get along. ‘She’ even spits in his coffee. Mind you, it took me a while to penetrate the thick, and somewhat variable accent that Ajax was hiding his lines in – good job this was a captioned performance. Turns out he’s Scottish! And Lily Thersites is Scouse. I wasn’t aware of any other specific accents, so why these choices? Just another baffling point that got in the way of enjoying the play.
They were doing the usual trick of bringing the next scene’s characters on just before the previous scene finishes, which you would have thought would have shortened the running time from the three hours twenty it’s currently at. However, this time they bring on Priam, on his sick bed, for the debate on How Do You Solve A Problem Like Helen? Paris gets a good slap from Priam, which was the best bit of the scene, and Cassandra has a good rant, showing off her knickers to all and sundry as various brothers try to haul her off. Not a great scene, but at least I stayed awake through it.
Now it’s back to the Greeks, with Thersites showing he’s not biased, because he rants at Patroclus as well, while the latter is doing his tai chi practice. The Greek generals arrive, and talk for quite a while, trying to get Achilles to get his act together, but no luck, and no entertainment value either. Then Pandarus has his chat with Helen and Paris. These two came on with the entourage for a photo shoot, and posed for several minutes while lackeys did their hair and makeup, positioned their frocks, etc. Frankly, although this was very entertaining, I confess I can’t remember anything else about this scene – what the characters discussed, why Pandarus wanted to talk to them in the first place, nothing. As such, this scene effectively represents the whole of the production, at least as much as I saw of it, and from Steve’s comments later, the rest of it as well.
Given the lack of anything remotely interesting happening on stage, it’s no surprise that the next scene, where Troilus and Cressida meet for the first time, was where I started to lose the will to stay awake. I did my best, but the stuffiness, the unintelligible delivery of the lines, and the bland acting all conspired to lull me away to dreamland – a much more profitable experience, trust me.
Steve’s views on the second half were not much different. The characters were not coming across clearly as different people, and he wouldn’t have rated the performance much higher than I did, if at all. Thersites’ Lily Savage resemblance was emphasised in the second half, as ‘she’ dressed up for the party between the Greeks and Trojans (don’t they know there’s a war on?) in Helen’s flouncy frock, and wore a large blond wig.
For a sell-out, there were quite a few seats empty at the start, and even more after the interval, with an almost embarrassing lack of applause at the end. Troilus and Cressida were coming back on for another set of bows when the clapping had all but stopped. Still, some of the critics liked it, so that’s all right then.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me