August 21, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Troilus and Cressida @ Shakespeare’s Globe

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For a play that, on first publication, was described as "never stal’d with the Stage, never clapper-clawd with the palmes of the vulger", Troilus and Cressida worked astonishingly well at the Globe in Matthew Dunster’s new production. Funny, moving, disquieting and exciting by turns, this consistently interesting production made the most of the play’s myriad tones and characters to create what can only be described as a modern tragedy; a tragedy in which the end result is not the loss of life, but the failure to attain happiness.

The key to interpreting this production was its placing with the Globe’s 2009 "Young Hearts" season. Taking as its cue the youthful exploration of love-politics treated comically in Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It, and the life-or-death passion of Romeo and Juliet, Dunster’s masterstroke was in recasting Cressida as a modern heroine in the Stephanie Meyers mould. Laura Pyper’s Cressida was a purple-haired teenager just discovering her sexual identity. Fully aware of the theory, she teased Pandarus and flirted on the balcony for the benefit of the returning Trojan troops, confident and forward in presenting herself. When called upon to put the theory into practice, however, she became shy, as if now required to live up to the image of sexual confidence she had hitherto projected. As she confessed and retracted her love for Troilus to his face, she showed the confusion that comes with trying to follow both the ‘rules’ of love and her own feelings, uncertain of how much of herself she was meant to yield up to him.

My understanding of Cressida was in no small part influenced by the large group of teenage girls standing near me in the pit, demonstrating once again the unique nature of a Globe experience. The reactions of this section of the audience showed a clearly affinity to her situation, and the seemingly genuine gasps of shock when Cressida gave Diomedes the sleeve Troilus had given her only served to underline how significant this gesture was for the character. I didn’t take to Pyper’s Cressida at first, but as the play progressed I understood that her performance re-enacted the play from the point of view of a typical teenage girl, exaggerating every gesture, glance and thought into a dramatic personal tragedy of which she was the centre. When truly dramatic situations then occurred, such as the news of the prisoner exchange, they only served to confirm for her the significance which she had placed upon everything else, and she thus responded with increasingly dramatic gestures such as tearing down the curtains of her room.

Seen through Pyper’s performance, Troilus thus became a coming-of-age drama, chronicling the point at which childish fantasies of love and happiness are forced to give way to the scary and messy realities of adulthood. On arriving in the Grecian camp, Cressida was shaking and petrified, and the dignified kiss of Nestor was almost as creepy as the forceful kiss of Agamemnon or the pain caused by Achilles grabbing her face. The wit she had once displayed in banter with her uncle became the desperate means by which she could escape Menelaus’ rough clutches, in a truly uncomfortable scene that showed the young girl having to grow up quickly in order to defend herself – yet also unconsciously drawing closer to Diomedes in a residual, childish need for protection.

The central storyline climaxed with a brilliantly-staged overhearing scene that fully embraced the idea of an unlocalised stage. Ulysses’ "Stand where the torch may not discover us" established that the three onlookers were hidden (here, Thersites openly accompanied Ulysses and Troilus), but this then allowed them to move freely around and even between Diomedes and Cressida. Rather than attempt to literally show their concealment, Dunster took the opportunity to express the love triangle through blocking; so, for example. Troilus stood close behind Cressida as she defied Diomedes, physically positioning the true lovers against the interloper. Paul Stocker’s anxious and angst-ridden Troilus was particularly good here, extending his hand to touch her but aware that she was already beyond his reach.

In contrast to the childish dramatics of Cressida, Troilus communicated the depth of his feelings in heartfelt ways with little artifice. His primary concern was with emulating his older brothers in attempting to be warlike and manly, yet Cressida overpowered his thoughts. His reaction to the news of the prisoner exchange saw him tremble on "How my achievements mock me", before screaming in a deafening and unsettlingly primal roar, collapsing to his knees. After a long, still silence, he got up and formally said "I will go meet them". The scream and silence internalised his sorrow, making it more powerful than any sustained display of emotion could have done, and the speed and force with which the two young lovers ran together before being parted was heartbreaking. In torment, Troilus’ dressing for war was one of the play’s more moving scenes, copying Hector with an angry defiance.

The political plot was expertly executed, juggling the large number of characters and giving every individual moments to shine, while at the same time not losing sight of the bigger satirical picture. Dunster’s primary target was the hypocritical and dangerous culture of machismo that tainted most of the soldiers. The Trojans lived in a homoerotically-charged environment where young male retainers walked around topless and lounged in Helen’s boudoir. Ben Bishop’s Paris was, against type, a hairy and portly older man, who indulged in playful violence with Ania Sowinski’s tempestuous Helen and laughed off accusations of disregard for his country. One sympathised more with Jay Taylor’s pathetic and miserable Helenus, comically dismissed in the parade of soldiers by Pandarus, who showed a sincere fear in the testosterone-fuelled Trojan court. It was the treatment of Cassandra (Sowinski again) by her brothers, however, that came in for most criticism, with Troilus in particular speaking scornfully of "our mad sister". Mad she may have been, but Cassandra and Andromaque were moving in their unheeded lamentations, particularly as the former lay out Hector’s armour in the shape of a dead body. Concerned as they were with glory, strength and vaunting (as particularly embodied by Fraser James’s Aeneas, mounting a plinth to deliver Hector’s challenge), they drove themselves to disaster.

The Greek camp was similarly unsympathetically portrayed, though very differently. Each of the commanders was flawed: Agamemnon cantankerous, Menelaus bitter and pathetic, even Ulysses (the always-reliable Jamie Ballard) displayed a deep-rooted rage against what he saw as Cressida’s ‘threat’ to the camp. Diomedes (doubled by Jay Taylor) kept himself in the background during the earlier scenes, before moving in to throw everything else into turmoil. Subtly played – a raised eyebrow as he noted Troilus’ affection for Cressida, an unmoved expression as Troilus later faced up to him – , Taylor made Diomedes a genuinely threatening rival for Troilus, confident and open in his actions. The comic highlight, though, was Chinna Wodu’s Ajax. Big, slow and the very epitome of vainglorious, Wodu nailed the humour of the character, and his clumsy ignoring of Achilles, one of his very few expressions of wit, was a triumph for the dull man over his rival. However, Ajax was still a dangerous presence in his own way, it taking two men to stop him continuing to fight Hector after the tilt had been ended.

Trystan Gravelle wore a dressing gown throughout as Achilles, accompanied always by the bare-chested Beru Tessema as his openly gay partner. The disdain of Patroclus for the other commanders, and for war in general, made him a fascinating presence throughout, setting himself above everyone else. His death was passed over quickly, however, emphasising rather Achilles’ sense of wounded pride as his reason for rejoining battle. Facing off against Hector during the truce, both men were unambiguously antagonised by the other, and their duel on the battle-field, in which Achilles was easily bested, was brutal. In general, I was surprised at how exciting the cumulative effect of the battles was – individually, most of the fights were unspectacular (although Hector’s kick to Achiless’ midriff was very impressive), but as they grew more desperate, a genuine sense of voyeuristic excitement seemed to fill the Globe. The murder of Hector therefore felt even more distasteful as a result. The Myrmidons, more unsoldierly young men in Patroclus’ vein, were summoned, and stood in a line opposing Hector as he, unarmed, drank water. As he looked at Achilles in confusion at this breach of the chivalric code, another Myrmidon creeped up behind him and cut his throat. Achilles’ lack of scruples was further shown as he cut the arm of one of his followers, bloodying his knife in order to claim the victory for himself. The falling of black drapes around the theatre marked the significance of Hector’s death.

Two more characters to give detailed attention to. Paul Hunter made for a wonderful Thersites, effectively narrating the action (including the Prologue) throughout. Thersites was misshapen, with eye-glass, hunchback and extended rump, allowing him to be pummeled by Ajax. Moving among the wars, immune to harm, he provided satiric commentary as well as adlibbing with the crowd ("Trojan war memorabilia! Hector’s war diaries!"), establishing the necessary tone by which the rest of the play might be understood. In this sense, Thersites actually became the most important character in the play, the eyes through which we saw everybody else, his judgments informing ours. He was also hysterically funny throughout, providing much of the simple pleasure of the performance. In a slightly insane scene, he was introduced to us amid a collective of other Eastern street vendors, including a snake charmer with a rubber snake on a string, who demanded money from we groundlings.

Matthew Kelly was also funny as Pandarus, but in a far more creepy way. Played as an unabashed voyeur, Kelly’s Pandarus was disgusting in his explicit mode of address to his niece, prompting shudders from the audience. Frolicking about the stage, manouvering the young lovers to his satisfaction, he provided a good deal of comedy, particularly during "Nothing but Love", which consisted of those three words sung over and over with surreal backing vocals from the rest of the cast and a chorus line formed by Paris, Helen and their boys. As the play progressed, however, the old man became increasingly irrelevant, pushed away by both Troilus and Cressida. As he staggered in, ailing, with Cressida’s letter to Troilus, Troilus made it clear in no uncertain terms that his storyline, his time, was over, and that there was no need for him anymore. This resulted in a wondeful end for the play. As Troilus finally dismissed Pandarus with his "Live aye with thy name", Pandarus was left alone on stage. Instead of delivering the text’s Epilogue, however, he began repeating, almost at random, his lines from earlier in the play. Marching up and down the stage, insane in his sickness and grief, broken phrases such as "Nothing but love", "Is this the generation of love?" and "Is love a generation of vipers?" became prominent, as the rest of the company entered and stood together and drumming drew to a climax. This troubled but entirely fitting end to the production ended it on the requisite pessimistic note, emphasising that the troubles we bring down on our heads are of our own making.

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