What: Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon, England
Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)
When: 18th October 2018
As always, in recent years, I have titled my assessment of an RSC production with a quote or two from the play itself, but I must admit, even to myself, that this title is a little hard to understand and consequently it won’t help you to get to the heart of what I’m trying to say in this review unless I break it down a little.
To explain I must digress a little…
The last time the RSC produced and performed Troilus and Cressida was in August of 2012. My review of the press night of that show can be found here:
That particular production was a collaboration between the RSC and the Wooster group from New York City, the city in which I am writing this review having flown there the day after the current press night. That production was dreadful (in every sense of that word) and the actors gave the impression that they had never met each other before and certainly never rehearsed together. The run was not a long one. Even on press night, few returned after the interval. It was quite the worst production I have seen in eleven years of covering the RSC’s Shakespearean output.
But that was six years ago but bad memories stay around for a while and my expectations for the 2018 Troilus were not high.
Gladly, I was wrong. And my title is meant to suggest that Troilus was presented just the way he is meant to be – he is strong, stolid and faithful throughout. Cressida is also how she is meant to be – faithless and changing with the weather. I clarify this because I would not want to suggest in any way that she was portrayed in a way which was the less of Gavin Fowler’s Troilus. Indeed, if this was a competition, Amber James’ performance outstrips Mr Fowler’s for quality, if only slightly. We are left not understanding why in her feckless way, Cressid is unfaithful to Troilus with her new-found Greek suitor, Diomed (played by Daniel Burke) but this is just how it should be. The text makes it clear that she does not know herself. She is not the Cressida that Troilus imagined she was. She gives away her faithfulness and breaks her promise as cheaply as she gives away the parting remembrance that Troilus gave her. In the same way, she regrets her choices and fails to understand why she has done so. Ms James displays the beauty that we expect to see in Cressid but also the lack of depth of understanding which should be in the character. This is most emphatically not a flaw. It is just right.
Aside from the leading pair, there are many other strengths in this production. Amongst the cast, Daniel Hawksford captures the stoic Hector well. Andy Apollo has his finger on the pulse of Achilles’ arrogance and self-love. Oliver Ford Davies, as always, is wonderful. In this outing he has been given the role of Pandarus who seeks to bring the two lovers together. His impish mischief in being the matchmaker is just right – his tortured remorse when the match comes apart and his Cressid proves worthless, could not really be bettered.
The musical composition by Evelyn Glennie is exceptional and the play may even have been improved for more of the same in some of the scenes where it was under-used. The musicians on the night truly brought her notation and ideas to life.
But this is not a production which avoids raising its fair share of questions about the directorial decisions made. And most of them could have been avoided with a little more thought. None of them are on the scale of the problems surrounding that horrendous night in 2012.
As in all recent RSC productions, there is the question behind the reasoning and logic in casting female actors in male roles or converting male characters to female. As far as I could figure out all of the changes fell into the former category. Ulysses, Agamemnon and Thersites were amongst the characters that were still portrayed as male (I think) but that were played by females. I was somewhat non-plussed about the value of these decisions but it carried some almost secondary advantages. Even so, I’m not For example, when Nestor (a male character played by a male actor – Jim Hooper) and Ulysses (a male character played by a female actor – Adjoa Andoh) attempt to persuade Agamemnon (Suzanne Bertish – a male character played by a female actor) in regard to what the approach to the war with the Trojans should be in future, it is Ms Andoh who manages to bring her words to life at a point in the play when there are lengthy speeches to listen to and logical reasoning to follow. She adds a drama to her interpretation that is not present in Nestor’s words.
Both Ms Andoh and Ms Reid are well-known outside the world of Shakespearean theatre for their television work and this may well increase audiences for what is a slightly obscure Shakespeare play these days. Adjoa Andoh will be known to many for her role in Casualty amongst other things. Sheila Reid will be recognised most recently for her role as the old lady terrorising her relatives in the ITV farcical comedy Benidorm.
Ms Reid’s performance though has its plusses and minuses for the production. On one hand her comedy and body language are excellent. On the other, her comedy drowns the fact that Thersites is a Shakespearean fool in the classic sense and his presence and repartee is really a satire on the lack of wisdom and intelligence displayed by the Greek leaders. This aspect of her words is drowned by her presentation and the laughter it brings. Add this to her thin and shrill voice which does not carry well, and her casting is perhaps a mixed blessing.
Thersites also plays a big part in one of the clumsiest parts of this production which is ladened with the RSC current attitude to exploring sexual and related matters. In classical literature, some authors suggest a homosexual relationship existed between Achilles and Patroclus, other writers are silent. In the text of this Shakespeare play, the sole allusion to this is when Thersites suggests that there is a rumour in the camp that Patroclus is Achilles’ male whore. The RSC intending to exploit this notion for its own purposes overplays its hand. If it is a rumour and camp-gossip, then there can be no clear evidence of it. But here the two in their first scene emerge from Achilles’ tent adjusting their flies. They kiss at length and in public. It is all handled in a rather cack-handed manner and to the production’s detriment. It needed a good deal more sympathy.
I was talking to some audience members who argued that it was hard to tell the difference between cast members and the “sides” in the war by their costumes and to a small degree. this has some validity. More noticeably a problem in this aspect was the fact that the Greek army looked like they were dressed as the cast of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” with Agamemnon (Suzanne Bertish) doing a fair visual impression of Tina Turner’s character in that “cinematic masterpiece”.
So. taking the good with the bad, the fact that Greg Doran’s production inevitably improved on the same play’s 2012 run is no surprise but that it also left this reviewer leaving the theatre feeling that many things were right with the world after all is quite an achievement. Of the recent RSC ventures into the world of Shakespeare, I would rather spend a night with this than the Merry Wives of Windsor (pun intended!). It is considerably more to my liking than Romeo and Juliet and only the presence of Eccleston and Cusack would make me choose Macbeth.