With first editions dating to 1609 (incidentally the year of the publication of his sonnets), Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s later plays. It takes place seven years into the siege of Troy and tells the story of two Trojan lovers who become separated only a night after consummating their marriage when Cressida (played by a refreshingly unpretentious and down-to-earth Amber James) is sent to the Greek camp in exchange for the return of a prisoner-of-war after exchanging love tokens with Troilus (an energetic and endearingly boyish Gavin Fowler). However, despite being a visual and auditory spectacle, like the text itself, this production is tricky to get to grips with.
Not only does it defy categorisation (falling in a grey area somewhere between tragedy and comedy); its plot manages to be at the same time complicated and restricted. Very little actual stage-time is devoted to exploring Troilus and Cressida’s relationship, which is a shame for it makes their romance feel a little one-dimensional. For the most part, the production follows the machinations of the Greek and Trojan war parties. While this, in itself, is not a problem as Ulysses’ (Adjoa Andoh) efforts to tempt Achilles (Andy Apollo) back into battle are entertaining enough, there are moments when one fears that the plot become a little hard to follow for anyone not on top of their Homeric mythology. The brief appearances of Cassandra perhaps exemplify this. Gifted by the god Apollo with the ability to prophesy the future, but at the same time cursed that no one would ever believe her word, hers is a horrifying story and Charlotte Arrowsmith’s portrayal is mesmeric. But without context, her importance is in danger of being lost.
Troilus and Cressida is notoriously full of testosterone and not much else, so it is laudable (if intriguing) that director Gregory Doran chose to cast this production with total gender balance. The famous Greek leaders Agamemnon and Ulysses, played with great aplomb by Suzanne Bertish and Andoh respectively, are presented in this production as straight-talking women. The play does not suffer at all for this; in fact it adds a pleasing touch, as these down-to-business Greek women provide a knife-edge contrast to the lolling romantics and pretensions of pride that lurk at the edges (and sometimes even in the middle) of the psyches of some of the more typically male characters. Indeed, the production is full of excellent individual performances. The cast are clearly at ease with the language of the play and shape nuance and meaning with ease. Standouts include Oliver Ford Davies’ Pandarus who single-handedly creates a great deal of the show’s comedy, Andoh’s stern and wily Ulysses and Sheila Reid’s gloriously nutty Thersites.
As seems to be customary at the RSC, the production value here is breath-taking. From the meticulously detailed dystopian steampunk costumes (Mad Max on speed comes to mind), for which designer Niki Turner and wardrobe master James Blackmore-Hoy deserve high praise, to the hypnotic and visceral percussion-based soundtrack by Evelyn Glennie, this production is a multi-sensory spectacle. Unfortunately its ultimate cogency and value does not stand or fall on these things, making them sometimes feel like distractions.
Troilus and Cressida is a problematic play. Doran’s version is majestic and eye-catching, but instead of embracing and making something of the text’s irregularities and contradictions, it seems to ignore them completely, leaving a confusing yet still entertaining final product.
Troilus and Cressida is playing The Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 17 November 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.