Troilus And Cressida – August 2102

5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte for The Wooster Group

Directed by Mark Ravenhill for the RSC

Venue: The Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Thursday 16th August 2012

This was always going to be a bizarre experience; fortunately, it was also an interesting one. Prompted by Rupert Goold, the RSC and the Wooster Group, an experimental theatre group based in New York, started looking at a co-production of a Shakespeare play, possibly Coriolanus. The Wooster Group took the idea on board and began to work on Troilus And Cressida, and when the RSC commitment became uncertain, they planned to go ahead themselves anyway (a lot of this info came from the post-show). When Rupert couldn’t squeeze every possible project into his tight schedule, the co-production looked finished, but then Mark Ravenhill came to the rescue. Well, all he was doing at the time was sitting in a cottage in Stratford writing a play for the RSC, so of course he had time to spare! (I jest, of course.) Still, out of this strange Frankenstein-like experiment of two groups of actors rehearsing the same play separately has come a weird progeny: like the creature in that story, it has both innocence and darkness, ugliness and beauty in about equal measure. Let’s give it a chance to breathe before we decide whether to kill it or let it live.

The two tribe concept was immediately apparent from the set. A wall of steel panels spanned the back of the stage with a tepee in front of it, surrounded by various objects such as metal drums, old tyres, etc. These were generally painted with bright colours, so it took me a while to realise what they were. This side of the wall represented the Native American location (Troy) and there was often a cooking fire, complete with suspended cooking pot, in the centre of the stage for these scenes. Electronic wizardry was also noticeable on either side at the back, poles with video screens in each corner and extra screens at the back of the stage and at the front of the circle.

When the wall turned round to the other side we were in the Greek camp, where they used a hospital trolley and screens to represent Achilles’ tent, and when the wall was end on to us or at an oblique angle it marked the scenes where both sides met in between, usually the battle scenes. The Native American costumes were a mix of modern and historical (I would guess) and their warriors wore bodies on their backs when fighting. It was as if they’d skinned more than a scalp off the enemies they killed and were using these trophies to show off their prowess in battle. I noticed when Pandarus was introducing the Trojan warriors to Cressida, one of them was a bit weaker looking and had no body on his back, presumably a beginner. The Greek soldiers wore British army fatigues, except when Achilles dressed up in a bright red evening dress, slit to the hip and with a low-slung back – very fetching. Thersites mostly knelt in a wheelchair, suggesting his lower legs had been cut off, and was usually in drag with wig, makeup and Spandex top.

The prologue was ditched altogether, and the play started with Troilus complaining to Pandarus that he’s still waiting to get Cressida’s love, whiny little brat that he is. Mind you, I wouldn’t have known that from the dialogue, as I wasn’t able to tune in to the accents being used for quite some time, and the actors’ delivery was rather monotonous which didn’t help. The American actors were also miked up, so the volume was fine, but they lacked clarity, which wasn’t. The talk between Troilus and Aeneas was likewise hard to follow, and I was beginning to regret coming. I did find some aspects of this staging funny though, especially the ludicrous wigs these non-Native Americans were wearing, and I was keen to see how the two halves would merge, so I stayed put.

Cressida’s arrival improved things slightly. Her initial exchange with Pandarus, spoken more quietly at the front of the stage, started to engage me even though I still wasn’t hearing the full dialogue. To view the returning warriors, she clambered on top of the tepee, with Pandarus standing just beside her. The warriors each came on stage, stood in a large circle at the centre and did a little dance before leaving. After Pandarus left, Cressida gave us her soliloquy quite well at the front of the stage before departing.

Now for the Greeks. Their arrival was pretty rumbustious; they were singing loudly to some heavy rock drumming, and the energy of the performance went up several notches. The dialogue became instantly clearer, and with no microphones we could easily identify the location of each speaker, which was proving much harder with the miked actors. This scene is very wordy, but with Scott Handy playing Ulysses we were in safe hands. He expressed Ulysses’ arguments so well that each phase of his reasoning followed on from the last, and all were necessary – no mean feat. Achilles had been lying on the trolley after their group entrance, but when Ulysses described Achilles’ slothful behaviour, the trolley came forward and Achilles even spoke some of the lines which Ulysses was reporting. I noticed Ulysses had a notebook which he checked to get Achilles’ exact words, which also suggested he had spies everywhere. Patroclus also acted out the impersonations which Achilles asked him to do, so we could clearly see what was going on.

After Aeneas’s arrival and the issuing of the challenge from Hector, all but Ulysses left the stage, with Nestor last of the group. He was called back by Ulysses, who described his plan for getting Achilles to cooperate with the other Greek leaders. His description of Ajax was scathing, but not inaccurate as we learned a few moments later when Ajax turned up and began to knock lumps out of Thersites. Ajax was played by Aidan Kelly, wearing a muscle suit which had ‘Ajax’ tattooed on the right breast in Greek letters, a Nike swoosh on the left breast (cheeky) and ‘I’M AWESOME’ plastered across his back in large letters. That was funny in itself, but his arrogant and stupid behaviour had us laughing often. He left off hitting Thersites after Achilles and Patroclus arrived, but he had already dragged Thersites from his wheelchair and left him on the ground. Achilles put him back in his chair, and then Thersites insulted everyone and left. Not a nice man. Ajax finally found out about the proclamation – that the Greeks would select their champion to meet Hector by lot – and that was the Greeks finished with for a while.

Back in Troy the king and his lords were discussing whether to send Helen back or not. Hector was all for it, Troilus argued against. I heard more of this debate than most of the previous Trojan dialogue, so that helped. Cassandra’s dire prophecy came over on the screens and loudspeakers rather than in person, although I did spot a woman peering out of the tepee towards the end of that speech; it may have been her, or maybe not. I suspect some dialogue was cut, as I don’t remember it taking too long to get through this scene, and then we were back with the Greeks.

Thersites’ explanation as to why he, Achilles, Patroclus and Agamemnon were all fools came across very clearly, and although I wasn’t sure at first about Zubin Varla’s portrayal, I quickly came to like his Thersites very much. The dialogue was clear, it commented on and explained the action very well, and his characterisation of Thersites as a Mancunian drag queen didn’t jar with this production. He often used a hand held microphone to deliver his lines, which worked very well in this version of the play. (And I learned from Zubin Varla after the post-show that he saw Thersites’ comments on the action as effectively being stand-up.)

When Agamemnon arrived, Achilles withdrew to his tent; the screen was partially drawn across but we could still see what was going on from our angle. Thersites stayed with Achilles, but Patroclus acted as door keeper and repelled all would-be boarders. Ulysses was pushed into the tent, and had a bedpan emptied over his head while he was there. Meanwhile Ajax was becoming even more vain and boastful, and the other Greek generals puffed him up as well, showing by their expressions to us what they really thought of him. When Agamemnon suggested that Ajax visit Achilles, Ulysses, while still drying himself off, cleverly prevented this by suggesting that Ajax was too important to run errands to Achilles, puffing him up even more.

In Troy, Pandarus had his witty exchange with a servant, and this time the humour came across much better. Scott Handy was doubling Ulysses and Helen in this production – given his lovely falsetto voice that was no surprise – and I liked the way this brought out the forced change of culture that both Helen and Cressida undergo. This Helen certainly looked like a fish out of water. Her clothes were a mixture of Greek and Trojan, she seemed disoriented and not at all happy to be amongst these people, but when the dancing started up she did join in a bit as if this was one of the few things she had found to enjoy in her new home. It was a sad performance (in a good way) and easily overshadowed the mushy presentation of this scene by the other actors. I only heard Helen say a few lines so the scene must have been severely cut, but apart from Scott’s performance it could have been dropped entirely for all the benefit I got from it.

The next scene showed us the first coming together of the eponymous lovers, and it worked reasonably well. With Pandarus sitting on his stool at the back making salacious comments, Troilus and Cressida spent most of the scene avoiding each other until the final moments of contact. We learned a few things about the Wooster Group’s techniques during the post-show, and this scene was a good example of how these manifested in performance. The actors spent a lot of time watching the screens to see the images, which were usually either from films that have influenced their creative thinking for the production or video filmed as part of their research into Northern Mid-West Native American tribes. On top of this they all had ear pieces as well as mikes, and during their scenes they had spirit voices which would talk in their ears, giving them messages to incorporate or ignore, or occasionally falling silent. That they managed to give any sort of coherent performance with all this going on is commendable, but how did it affect the audience perception?

For most of the scene Troilus and Cressida avoided physical contact. They sat on the stage together, stood and looked at the screens, did little dances or ran round in a circle. Their dialogue was connected, but they weren’t. When the moment of physical contact came with a touching of outstretched hands, the technology enhanced the moment with flashes from the screens and a loud noise to suggest an explosion or electrical discharge. The two lovers collapsed backward when this happened, an apt metaphor, but recovered to finish the scene with the prophetic vows.

I found this disconnection between the lovers less engaging, and it didn’t add anything to my understanding of the play. Pandarus was more engaged with both of them and as a result he came across much better as a character as well as his dialogue being more intelligible. The images being shown on the screens also didn’t add anything for me; there was usually so much happening on the stage that I rarely looked at them, although with this scene being a bit slower I did spot that there were stills from various movies being shown, images of lovers kissing for example. We didn’t know about the spirit voices at this time but I was certainly aware that the characters didn’t seem fully present, which was a bit insulting in a way as we were fully present, and had paid good money for the privilege! Despite this, I was again impressed by the way that Shakespeare’s text, given the tiniest opportunity, will reach out and hook the listener, keeping them interested and involved. So when they took the interval after this scene, the usual place, I was happy to stay for the second half to see how the experiment ended.

No so everyone. There were large gaps amongst us when the second half started with the Greeks hearing Calchas’s plea to exchange Antenor for Cressida, his daughter. As Danny Webb was doubling Agamemnon and Diomedes, he indicated the change of character by throwing a different hat onto the ground; when he picked it up and put it on, he was Diomedes, and spoke with an Australian accent to help us distinguish between them. He made good comic use of this technique, especially when Diomedes and Agamemnon were in the same scene, swapping hats briskly to change character.

For the tricking of Achilles, the Greek lords started over on the left side of the stage, with Ulysses lurking on the left walkway until the appropriate time. Achilles and Patroclus were centre stage, and I think Patroclus was wearing high heels by now – I don’t remember seeing them before this. The lords walked past the pair with attitudes of disdain, upsetting Achilles very much. After Achilles had registered his concern at being ignored, Ulysses made his entrance reading a book and again his subtle use of argument pushed Achilles in the very direction Ulysses wanted him to go. Mind you, it’s a dangerous thing to get Achilles worked up emotionally; he grabbed Ulysses at one point towards the end of their encounter and threw him across the stage; he had to be restrained by Patroclus. Ulysses managed to escape unharmed, however, and Patroclus was finally able to give Achilles much the same warning about his reputation, information which Achilles had been unwilling to listen to before. With Thersites’ arrival, we learned of Ajax’s preposterous behaviour which Thersites imitated for their benefit. He pulled his blond wig over his face and made nonsense answers to Patroclus and although I didn’t catch all of it, the lampooning was good fun.

In the next scene Diomedes arrived in Troy to take Cressida back to the Greek camp. Diomedes’ evaluation of Paris, Menelaus and Helen was clear, and then we returned to Troilus and Cressida after their night together.  Troilus came out of the tepee first, carrying his boots and clothes, and as I recall it was a little while before Cressida joined him – I don’t remember what he did in the meantime. She was wrapped in a blanket when she did appear, and with bare feet. They were closer physically this time. Aeneas warned Troilus that Cressida was about to be taken away, then Cressida herself heard the bad news from Pandarus and she and Troilus said their farewells and exchanged tokens. She wore a long yellow glove while he had some cloth on his arm, and holding hands they transferred first the cloth and then the glove across from one to the other. It was a nice touch, but otherwise I found the scene a bit dreary. The singsong intonation they were using had outstayed its welcome and I was feeling less charitable towards these Trojan-only scenes as a result.

Cressida was handed over to Diomedes, and this time I think Diomedes was directly involved in the conversation. When Cressida was brought back to the Greek camp, however, the Greeks clustered round the trolley, which was now in the centre of the stage with a dress placed on it, and ignored Cressida’s physical location. They addressed themselves to a Cressida of the imagination who was sitting on the trolley, and kissed thin air. Meanwhile Cressida took off her blanket and other garments before putting on the dress provided; after this, she became visible to the Greeks and started interacting with them directly. It was a strange way to do it, but it did show her assimilation into the Greek camp, and may have been an easier staging given the separate rehearsals. I didn’t feel I understood the attitudes of the Greek generals as well as I have done with more straightforward stagings, though, and Cressida was still a blank.

The meeting between the Greeks and Trojans was enlivened by Achilles’ appearance in his red party dress and lots more railing from Thersites. The scene between Diomedes and Cressida, overheard by Troilus and Ulysses, wasn’t helped by Cressida’s relatively deadpan delivery; again the Greeks were making much more of their lines and the emotional undercurrents of this play. I did feel that Troilus’s grief and anger at her betrayal was justified this time; sometimes he comes across as a whining brat, or I find myself wondering if he would actually have been as true as he’d sworn to be if they’d stayed together, but tonight his reaction seemed appropriate.

Andromache’s attempt to dissuade Hector from fighting was on the dull side, and then we were into the final battles. Achilles struck the first blow against the unarmed Hector, and instructed his Myrmidons to finish him off; they wore white coveralls with masks, like fencing masks. Diomedes and a Trojan – no idea who, sorry – had a fight at one point. Diomedes carried a cricket bat and the Trojan had a lacrosse stick, which was an entertaining way of representing the two cultures having the battle. (The cricket bat was always going to win, of course.) When Thersites was saying his last lines (the “bastard” speech) he stepped out of the wheelchair and stood behind it, taking off his clothes. At the same time, the wall swung round and one of the Trojans was standing on a ladder behind the tepee, also stark naked, apart from the black wig. When Thersites finished, he ran off with the wheelchair, and the wall had swung round again so the Trojan was out of view. No, I don’t have a clue either.

The final lines from Troilus and Pandarus didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I’d enjoyed enough of the performance that I didn’t feel I’d wasted the evening. The post-show was interesting, and we learned more about the Wooster Group’s processes, some of which I’ve included above. Their choice of a Native American setting for the Trojans was partly to enhance the idea of a different culture; they wanted to get away from a generically bland choice that wouldn’t contrast so well with the British half of the production. The singsong style of speech had helped them access the meaning of the dialogue (didn’t do the same for me, sadly) and although they’re not trained vocally to project in such a large space – hence the mikes – they did have a day’s training from an American expert in Shakespearean dialogue, and were rigorous in applying his lessons by obeying line endings, etc.

The videos we could see were not usually visible to the audience, so a thrust stage was obviously a new experience for them. Given this new situation, they were exploring possible changes, such as showing film of the actual cast on screen. The British scenes didn’t have pictures, of course, but they did show the oscilloscope display at times. They had five weeks to rehearse together, and I felt the British cast were supportive of their American colleagues. I commented on the humour I’d found in their performance, and Mark Ravenhill observed that Troilus And Cressida had originally been published as a ‘comedy’! (Though whether that was just to boost sales….) The production is still developing and changing all the time as they learn what works and what doesn’t. There were a number of appreciative comments which were well deserved, and although I wouldn’t endorse this style of experimental theatre, I did leave with respect for the American actors and their efforts. I wasn’t so impressed with their director, who seemed to have that arrogant attitude which implies that if the audience doesn’t get on with the performance it’s their fault, not the director’s. I may have picked that up wrong, but that’s how I saw it.

For me, the biggest drawback with their experimental style is that is goes against the raison d’être of theatre, which is to engage with the audience (and preferably with the other actors). Most of the technologically ‘innovative’ productions I’ve experienced tend to have this problem; the actors are so involved with the technology that they don’t actually relate to the audience at all, or not as much as they could. Technology is great in many ways, and has been used very successfully in a supplemental role, but it can’t drive productions as much as some people seem to think.

Another drawback was the choice of a Native American or Inuit setting for Troy. This led to the singsong delivery (already commented on) and a strange clash between the attention to detail, such as the occasional chanting and documentary-style videos, and the ludicrous costumes they wore which made them look like children dressing-up. I found a lot of humour in this approach, but I suspect it wasn’t intentional. For example, I made a connection between the Wooster Group name (from Wooster Street, apparently) and Bertie Wooster, seeing their style of production as the sort of ‘avant-garde’ rubbish Bertie would latch onto and which Jeeves would frown upon, only to be proved right in the end. It’s not a flattering comparison, but it did spring easily into my mind.

Additionally, my respect for the Native American culture, born out of ignorance I readily admit, meant that I found Pandarus’s speech at the end didn’t really work. He’d been a busybody, true, and eager to get Cressida into bed with Troilus, but he didn’t seem as lecherous as his final speech indicates. The Trojans came across as noble and decent, unlike the war-like Greeks (again, probably just my cultural conditioning).

The disparate styles didn’t bother me so much as the inappropriateness of the Americans’ style for this acting space, and I would happily see this experiment repeated, either with more compatible styles or perhaps using another language for one of the cultures – what chance German ‘Greeks’ attacking British ‘Troy’? The stand out performance had to be Scott Handy’s Ulysses/Helen, and it was worth the other stuff to have seen that alone, though the other Brits did splendid work as well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Troilus And Cressida – September 2009

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Wednesday 2nd September 2009

“War and lechery” is what this play’s usually about, and we got plenty of that today. We also got a good reading of the central relationship, and a running time of less than three hours for which my behind was very thankful.

The set projected forward of the stage again, with a curved edge. A narrowing channel ran from the ground level at the far side of the stage up at an angle almost to our side, with the slope allowing additional access to the stage. There was a square platform in front of the regular balcony, draped with cloth above and with curtains at each pillar below. The two main pillars were also concealed behind cloth wraps which made them look like, well, pillars, and the whole floor seemed to be covered with gray tarpaulin which had been painted with the odd bluish streak to resemble marble. It looked odd to begin with, but we were soon caught up in the story and the well wrapped set, with its hidden surprises, soon became an important part of the performance.

The unfolding of fabrics was a key part of this. While there were some armour storage solutions brought on from time to time, the main changes were brought about by drawing curtains, lifting up cloth to make the top of a tent, displaying a map of Greece, and using a long piece of green material to wrap around a pillar for Pandarus’s orchard. There may have been other things I’ve forgotten now, but the best bit was probably near the end. When Troilus comes on shouting about Hector’s death (Hector’s body is lying in the channel, with a decent-sized trickle of blood running down from it) black streamers fell down each pillar in the auditorium, simultaneously, and so abruptly that the audience gasped. It was a good effect, and overall it was one of the most active sets I’ve seen here.

The story was pretty active too, with plenty of sword fighting to keep us amused. Thersites’ initial description of the situation was illustrated with soldiers from both camps – Greeks in blue and Trojans in purple (makes a nice change from red). They didn’t fight, but did some practice manoeuvres (i.e. dances) instead. They didn’t hold back when it came to the actual battles, though.

The love story between Troilus and Cressida developed nicely, with Matthew Kelly as Pandarus giving a tremendous performance. I could hear every word and understood most of it too, even without the occasional lewd gesture to help it along. His own affection for Troilus was pretty clear, and I noticed how much he was concerned for that young man rather than his niece when the news of the exchange arrived. He made the most of every funny line, and was the best thing on the stage.

Cressida seemed a bit too lively at the start, running around all over the stage for no apparent reason, but at least this time we knew what she really felt about Troilus. As the story developed, particularly when she was first brought into the Greek camp, she came into her own and her vivacity and wit fell into place. I felt sorry for her, and I was very aware of a sense of menace in her situation in the Greek camp; she seemed to be looking towards Diomed for protection, and although she regretted being unfaithful to Troilus I couldn’t see what other choices she had.

Troilus was manly enough and not as silly as I’ve sometimes seen before. The Greeks were all fine, with the exception of Thersites, who delivered his lines in such a straightforward way that much of the humour disappeared. However he did add in one or two bits of his own, such as picking up debris from the battle and declaring “Trojan war memorabilia” then trying to sell it to the audience. Ajax was wonderfully full of himself, and it was good to see Jamie Ballard again, this time playing Ulysses, the crafty Greek who manipulates Achilles so well. These machinations were good fun, especially with Ajax strutting his stuff. I found Trystan Gravelle’s Achilles a bit wimpy myself – he clearly needed the benefit of his dip in the river Styx to be able to survive in battle. I also find that the Globe’s policy of letting each actor use their own accent contributes to the lack of clarity in the dialogue, as it not only takes me longer to tune in to a variety of accents, but some accents just don’t work so well in delivering Shakespeare’s lines. However on the whole the lines came across reasonably well this time.

The ending of the play was extended by having Pandarus give us a reprise of many of his lines from the play, as if from his grief and loathing. As he did so, the rest of the cast gradually came on stage with drums; in place of the usual dance we got a drum chorus instead, and very good it was too. Not the best production I’ve seen, but they kept the pace up and gave us a good performance.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Troilus And Cressida – May 2008

2/10

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

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