June 2, 2008, by Peter Kirwan
Troilus and Cressida (Cheek by Jowl) @ The Barbican
Cheek by Jowl’s new English-language production, Troilus and Cressida, seems to be one of those that is already polarising people. In just the day and a half since I saw it I’ve already heard from people who loved it and others who loathed it, and the reviews ranged from Michael Billington’s 4-star praise in the Guardian to John Peter’s damning 1-star review in the Sunday Times. Fortunately, it’s only my own opinion I have to worry about, so I’ll let the debate rage at a later date.
This was unmistakable, classic Cheek by Jowl from the off. The traverse seating created a long, thin playing area which director Declan Donnellan made full use of. Long strips of white cloth ran the length of the stage and, at the ends, rose steeply to the ceiling (designer Nick Ormerod clearly developing the visual themes introduced in Twelfth Night). The only set consisted of a series of 16 small crates/blocks that were continually moved about to form chairs, platforms and so on. The dark aesthetic of the set and costumes, almost entirely black and white save for the actors’ skins, allowed Judith Greenwood’s spectacular lighting design to play a key role in creating environments with beautiful moments such as the throwing up of three enormous shadows onto the wall as Troilus reported Hector’s death.
The play opened with the glamorous Helen, played with expert poise by the elegantly-dressed Marianne Oldham, strolling casually up and down the stage before delivering the prologue to the audience. Helen was given unusual prominence in this production, Donnellan using her to sexualise the Trojan war, imagining it as a series of conflicts between love and lust. This was emphasised powerfully at the start of the second act. Helen was added to the scene in which Paris and Diomedes discuss Helen’s merits, the two lovers naked under sheets and lying centrally. Walking off in opposite directions, and casting off their sheets as they left the stage, they gave way to Troilus and Cressida who entered chasing each other playfully before taking the place vacated by Helen and Paris. The two revelled in their new-found sexuality, both flashing Pandarus in mockery as the old man leered over his discovery of them. Not long after the couple’s separation, their place in bed was yet again usurped, this time by Achilles and Patroclus. The triply-repeated image, recurring in participants from all sides of the war, placed sex visually at the centre of all the character’s actions.
Sex, or the lack thereof, was key elsewhere. Oliver Coleman’s Menelaus (significantly doubled with Paris, the man who cuckolded him) was sexually frustrated, perhaps impotent, and was pointedly made the butt of everyone’s jokes. He retaliated in a moment of threatened violence at Cressida’s refusal to kiss him, an awkward moment in the Greek’s joviality which was skated over quickly. Ulysses, a nervy Ryan Kiggell, was surprisingly bookish and awkward and, again, it was sex where he seemed to lack experience, allowing Cressida to gull him into crawling on his knees begging like a dog for a kiss while the rest laughed at him.
Awkwardness and unpleasantness marred several of the characters. Perhaps most interesting was Alex Waldmann’s Troilus, a short and young man awed by his big brother Hector, in a strong performance by David Caves. As Pandarus and Cressida watched the Trojans parade, Hector paused centrally to go through maneuveres with his sword, swinging it expertly. Troilus followed close behind and tried to copy him, but far more clumsily, and it was left to Hector to correct his little brother. Troilus’ immature enthusiasm for love and war were his emotional downfall, leaving him vulnerable to hurt. His dismissal of Cressida on the news of the prisoner exchange was shockingly abrupt, he accepting the decision as just a part of what the larger game of war demanded. Later, as Hector armed for war, he leapt into his brother’s arms in a final gesture of childish dependence.
Lucy Briggs-Owen was similarly interesting as Cressida, dressed distinctly unglamorously in trousers and a vest-top throughout. She was an everyday Cressida, a normal girl dealing with emotions she didn’t understand. Her initial meeting with Troilus was wonderful, she unhappy about the whole thing and irritated by her uncle continually poking her in the back, to the point of trying to storm out, but eventually won over by Troilus’ simple enthusiasm. By the time of the parallel scene with Diomedes, as the hidden onlookers crouched in far corners of the stage, she had become far more sexually aware (as was apparent during her introduction to the Greeks as she slowly started trying out her power over them, culminating in her humiliation of Ulysses) and her frantic attitude with Diomedes belied her confusion – sexually aroused by the thug who treated her so brutally (often hitting her), loyal to an innocent memory of a former love and seductive as she tried to get what she wanted – only, she didn’t know what that was.
The Trojans, dressed in white vests and trousers and armed in white knee- and shoulder-pads, seemed more innocent in general than the shaven-headed and black-clad Trojans. Diomedes was little more than a football thug, Ajax a volatile Scot and the well-spoken Achilles, played by Paul Brennen, a quietly dangerous man. The meeting of the two sides following Ajax and Hector’s duel (won easily by Hector, and stopped with no reference to their family relation, an odd omission) was revealing about both sides. The Trojans came off best, Hector vaunting slightly but generally noble while the Greeks bickered and jostled among themselves.
They were entertained by Richard Cant’s Thersites, a transvestite modelled closely on Lily Savage, even down to the Scouse accent (which wasn’t a great accent, but then it’s my native one so I’m bound to be picky). Thersites was the Greek’s cleaner, giving him/her ample opportunity to banter with Patroclus, who was here a young, pretty and headstrong boy who spent most of his time doing tai-chi when not lying with Achilles. Cant’s Thersites was a bawdy entertainer who got some cheap laughs with antics such as spraying disinfectant in Patroclus’ face, but excelled in an invented cabaret scene where s/he entertained the Greek and Trojan troops, mocking the Greeks in turn through a microphone, sitting on laps, teasing Hector and, for a grand finale, changing from a black number into an exact copy of Helen’s dress in order to taunt Menelaus. The scene, marking the depravity on both sides (Hector joined in with gusto), went further to highlight the collapse of standards through sexual transgression.
The production dragged a little at the start, but the second act was powerful and exciting. Hector’s grossly unfair death, at the hands of several masked Myrmidons who surrounded him and bore him down between their shields, was a particular highlight. This was a play without redemption, without much even in the way of hope, and Pandarus ultimately summed up the tone in his bitter and sincere bequeathing to us of his diseases while the rest of the company stared at us. A bleak and powerful experience.
I saw this on Saturday and was left confused by what I thought about it. I was also annoyed that I didn’t get a lot of the clever word play as I haven’t read the text in ages. So I’ve booked to see it again later in June and am frantically revising from the Arden edition and its footnotes. When I next see it I want to ‘get’ all the witty wordplay and subtle use of language rather than sit there pretending to get it like everyone else. There are plenty of passages in that play where if you haven’t read an annotated text, the entirety of it will go straight over your head.
I’m glad you pointed out that the Thersites cabaret scene was invented because I searched through the text afterwards trying to find that bit and couldn’t! That they omitted the bit where Ajax is revealed to be half-Trojan is very puzzling. It would be good if they’d put their working script online so that those interested could see it. Worth mentioning in passing that the ‘programme’ for the Young Vic’s Good Soul of Szechuan is in fact the Penguin paperback of the translations they are working from; you pay £2 and get an £8.99 paperback which is nice.
I was really glad to see Marianne Oldham, because I’m a regular at The Factory’s Hamlet and the last time I saw her she was Ophelia taking a bite out of raw onion and spitting it in Laertes’ face. After that it was good to see her in a nice frock. I didn’t recognise her doubling as Cassandra.
Thersites was hilarious and I was sat there thinking that Paul O’Grady was looking well. When I saw Ajax, I thought Begbie from Trainspotting and Ulysses was for me Simon Heffer of the Daily Telegraph. I loved the way that Cressida controlled Ulysses like a dog in an obedience trial. Achilles looked like someone who might in another life at another time have owned a large number of skips.
The one criticism I have of the production is that the stylised killings of Patroclus (only reported in the original text) and Hector detracted from the cynical tone of the rest of the play. If the world is portrayed as full of dirty, corrupt liars then people shouldn’t die in balletic, choreographed displays.
Like you I’m attempting to see all Shakespere’s plays performed live, however probably over a longer time scale. Anyway T&C was one I hadn’t bagged so I was delighted to find it was on at somewhere accesible and by a respected company, I’d seen their Othello a couple of years ago at the Lowry and they had made the death of Desdemona truely shattering. However I was not really up to speed with the text, but I did know the Illyad, and Shakespere does do an excellent job in this play in dismantalling the idea of the Hero and the Glory of War and while he’s about it takes a swipe at Romantic Love. No wonder its so difficult to get to see a production. I liked the modern setting and the references to our current celebrity obssessed society. I suspect that the dark/light costumes guided us to the sympathies of author and director especially as the Greeks definately referenced any police force off on a swat operation while Paris looked like Don Johnson in the 80s Miami Vice. We did n’t realise he was doubling for Menelaus nor did most of the audience as at the curtain call the were lots of mutterings myself included about “where’s Paris”,”probably already off down the pub”, ” fantastic wig”. But to be serious its a difficult play and I felt I had had to work hard, but that’s what you go to see Shakespere for, and even a month on I’m still haunted by it. Images keep popping up, the way Cassandra snuggled into bed with the dying Priam, the way Achillies posed like El Duce, Ullysses begging like a dog, Cassandra (again a brilliant doubling from the actor playing Helen) being tenderly carried out by Hector having forseen his death, likewise Troilus’s farewell to Hector and finally the cowardly and shattering death of Hector (Brad Pitt would not have been queing up to play this Achilles being portrayed as both gay and a cheat). But mostly as I sat on the coach back to Leicester I thought of the officer class of the First World War their heads stuffed with myths of the Greek Heroes, well in the play Shakespere gives us all a well needed reality check.