It isn’t really fair to review shows at the first preview, unless, of course, they are absolutely brilliant which is the case with the RSC’s Troilus and Cressida, a production that is not actually immersive but which feels it thanks to the awe-inspiring set, fight scenes, costumes, percussion, and the jaw-dropping appearance of motorbikes on stage.
We are in a post-apocalyptic world, as we so often are in modern theatre, but not one with the panache of this.
The Bronze Age tale of the Trojan War resonates with the tinkling of bronzed waste, and the causes of the war, Helen and Paris, recline in a bronze, globular cage that descends from the ceiling. Gregory Doran’s production is inventive but, crucially, true to the spirit of the text- I’ll bet John Barton is smiling down.
The text itself may come as a bit of a shock: so much sex, straight and gay, so much cynicism plus a side order of voyeurism, and sexually transmitted disease jokes sound as if they must be modern interpolations but they are absolutely not. It contains some of my favourite language in Shakespeare, and that is not just the swearing.
Troilus and Cressida themselves are a romantic Romeo and a knowing Juliet, with the wit of Beatrice from Much Ado. Gavin Fowler and Amber James act with utter truth, and as the doomed relationship falls apart there is sympathy for both. Sent to the Greek camp, Cressida could easily become the camp whore, one of the “daughters of the game” instead of which she opts for terrifying, snake-tongued Diomed (Daniel Burke) as her “guardian” but there is indisputable physical attraction between them too, wringing out even more sympathy for betrayed Troilus who moves from gauche lover to ruthless killer.
Oliver Ford Davies gives an unsettling, funny performance as Cressida’s voyeuristic uncle Pandarus although his filthy song for narcissists Helen and Paris (Geoffrey Lumb and Daisy Badger – Pip for any Archers’ fans out there) is too muffled by the percussion to be heard- then again, maybe that is for the best.
Hector (Daniel Hawksford) breaks your heart with his heroism as he should, even if he is often irritatingly referred to as HecTOR- yes, I know it’s classically correct but it just sounds pretentious.
The Cassandra scenes are deeply disturbing but I wish more of the lines had been retained. No spoilers here, by the way.
The merry Greeks are a disreputable crew and there is an inspired comic moment where they could have been Dogberry and the watch. Menelaus (Andrew Langtree) deserves a special mention for physical comedy while Ajax (Theo Ogundipe) owns the stage. Achilles (Andy Apollo) and Patroclus (James Cooney) are fabulous in terms of looks and performance and their Ant People are costumed to be the stuff of nightmares.
The production is gender balanced, achieved by casting Suzanne Bertish as Agamemnon, Adjoa Andoh as Ulysses and Amanda Harris as Aeneas as well as making some of the smaller roles female with some switching of pronouns and “father” to “mother”; given our gender fluid times and the strong, de-feminised performances in the major roles, I think they could simply use the text as it is.
The wasp words of Thersites, foul-mouthed voyeur from the Greek camp are often difficult to hear which is deeply frustrating given the oustanding overall performance from Sheila Reid. Clever use of text here by, Mr Doran too. Ajax calls out “Mistress Thersites” in one of those stinging Elizabethan insults for a man, but here of course it’s literal.
I have loved Troilus and Cressida since I first borrowed the Complete Shakespeare from the library in my early teens, revelling in the naughtiness of its scatological portrayal of my heroes from Greek myth and I am thrilled to have seen it done so well.
It closes on November 17 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and is live screened at cinemas November 14. Don’t miss it!
“Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are
Now good now bad, tis but the chance of war.”
PS The Programme is fabulous including 2notes from John Barton on Troilus and Cressida and a great piece by Bettany Hughes