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REVIEW: Troilus and Cressida at the RSC

Amber James (Cressida), Oliver Ford Davies (Pandarus) and Gavin Fowler (Troilus) in Troilus and Cressida. Photos: Helen Maybanks/RSC
Amber James (Cressida), Oliver Ford Davies (Pandarus) and Gavin Fowler (Troilus) in Troilus and Cressida. Photos: Helen Maybanks/RSC

Gill Sutherland reviews Troilus and Cressida, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until 17th November

Most people aren’t that bothered about Troilus and Cressida, a quick Google search finds it consistently ranked as one of the least rated of Shakespeare plays in popularity polls on the internet – 32nd out of 37 on the YouGov website for example. John Dryden famously dismissed it as a “heap of rubbish”. Most likely it’s the confusing mishmash of Greek myth and grim world view puts folk off – especially the bit at the end where the audience is sort of cursed with a sexual disease.

John Barton, the RSC co-founder who died in January, however, declared it his favourite play. In the programme notes RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran explains that ahead of directing this new production he spent many hours listening to Barton “describe what drew him to this especially knotty, sinewy, teeming, challenging work”.

It starts in the middle of the Trojan War and ends in the middle of the war, with not much having happened except a lot of soldiers sulking or sounding off, the most worthy of them, Hector, is cruelly slain, and the love story between Cressida and Troilus is sullied by her infidelity.

After Barton’s funeral his sister gave four battered editions of the play to Doran, that her brother had used while directing, complete with his notes. This production is dedicated to Barton, and as it clearly bears his influence proudly, it is sort of a gift from beyond the grave, and one it would be churlish of you not to go and see.

What a tremendous parting present — albeit one that keeps on giving long after your bum is well and truly numbed! (Fascinating fact: it is Shakespeare’s third most speech-filled play and eighth longest.)

It looks and sounds just brilliant. It starts with the wonderful Daisy Badger as the famed beauty Helen delivering the prologue that sets the scene; how marvellous that she is given voice to explain how her kidnapping (by Trojan Paris from her Greek husband Menelaus) led to the current pickle. She does all this as she descends from the heavens in a spherical cage-type thing, Niki Turner’s design is imposing and impressive and transports you immediately to this weird far off place. The mood is dystopian Mad Max (this could be our future), with a motorbike instead of a horse, a quad bike fitted with outlandish mega horns instead of a trumpeter, and, perhaps most impressively, above the stage dangles seemingly hundreds of metallic objects of uncertain origins – car parts? Musical instruments? Old armour? This strange chandelier breathes and jangles in response to the action below. The dress code is ‘battle casual meets punk’; and is thoroughly captivating. Composer Evelyn Glennie’s incredibly atmospheric soundscapes – from clattering drums to high-pitched metallic scrapings – puts the nerves on edge and turns up the heat on the action; also assisted by the lighting, which is as rich and golden as a balmy evening on Santorini.

The very best thing about this topnotch production, though, is the acting.

Each actor brings alive their character with real depth and meaning. Having hitherto been oblivious to the merits of Troilus and Cressida, I now get it. The play is a masterclass in characterisation; and the dramatis personae a delicious and dazzling array of personalities, most of them faulty – yup, even the iconic heroes. Among a stellar cast Amber James really stood out for me. Cressida’s change from loved-up and loyal to unfaithful has caused much puzzlement, but Amber’s Cressida is complex, clever, fearsome and seductive – and she is utterly believable despite her seeming contradictions. Gavin Fowler as the more fragile lover, Troilus, is entirely charismatic too. Pandarus – the conniving matchmaker and pervy uncle to Cressida – is a great role, and in the hands of veteran RSC actor Oliver Ford Davies, it becomes doubly great, at turns hilarious and poignant. Charlotte Arrowsmith gives a truly out-there performance as Cassandra, the ignored prophet; the deaf actress uses frantic hand signals and guttural cries to try and make her point and is startlingly, brilliantly harrowing. Tiny Sheila Reid as lewd and clever commentator Thersites, and huge Theo Ogundipe as thicko thug Ajax both bring tremendous heart and humour to their roles.

But really the whole thing is kick-ass and something to be treasured. Thanks Greg and John, what a treat.

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