Theatre review: Troilus and Cressida at the RSC
Troilus and Cressida, 2018
Royal Shakespeare Company
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Gregory Doran Cast: Amber James, Gavin Fowler, Oliver Ford Davies, Adjoa Andoh, Sheila Reid, Theo Ogundipe, Andy Apollo, Daniel Hawksford, Geoffrey Lewis, Amanda Harris
Opus Arte DVD
For a number of reasons Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is what you might call a problem play, and as such, having fewer productions, it's probably underrated. As with any Shakespeare play however the qualities are there for a director to highlight and bring to the surface if they are able to navigate its treacherous problematic switches of tone. Such variances of tone are not uncommon in Shakespeare, particularly in the English History Plays, so there are ways of managing this. Principally, it's about getting the characterisation right and letting them dictate the tone and trusting that the underlying meaning will rise to the surface. That at least seems to me to how Gregory Doran's production for the RSC manages to make something greater out of this misjudged and underrated play.
One of the reasons why you might consider Troilus and Cressida a problem play is that Shakespeare's view of the Greek-Trojan War is, perhaps not unexpectedly, rather different from the conventional classical one. Like everything in history - and especially the History Plays - a considerable amount relies on the perspective it's told from. Troilus and Cressida are of course minor figures on the stage of the war between the forces of Priam and Agamemnon, but Shakespeare uses them to present an alternative and less idealistic view on war and heroism.
Prince Troilus is certainly not a famous warrior on the scale of Achilles, Hector or Ajax, nor is he more favoured in the eyes of Helen than his brother Paris, even though he is praised as such by Pandarus, who is hoping to help him win the attentions of his niece Cressida and set up a favourable marriage. It's a lot of talk and ego-inflating, but then that seems to be the case for the other supposedly great heroes here. Seven long years of war without making any progress in the defeat of Troy could be seen a failure, but Agamemnon says that it's from such adversity that greater heroism can arise.
Ulysses sees it another way, the war not so much promoting adversity as weakness. He points to the self-absorption and lazy self-satisfied contemplation of the famous warrior's revelling in their own greatness. Achilles, for example, refuses to dirty his hands any further in the way, citing a promise to his betrothed Polyxena, but in reality he's set up a cozy little love nest with his lover Patroclus to satisfy his vanity. Partly to goad Achilles, Ulysses proposes that Ajax challenge his Trojan counterpart Hector in a one-on-one combat, but it also gives the Greeks a get-out if Hector should defeat someone who isn't considered the Greek's best warrior.
There's another way of looking at the state of affairs and that perspective is offered - and as is often the case more truthfully - by the fool, who in this case is Thersites. "Nothing but lechery" is what it is all about according to Thersites, all of them "incontinent varlets". Or as he later qualifies, "Wars and lechery, still wars and lechery. Nothing else holds fashion". It's what led to the Trojan war in the first place (Helen characterised as a loose woman, Menelaus as an idiot with "not so much brain as ear wax"), and it's such vanity, such jealousy, such lechery that gives rise to pride, arrogance and revenge, leading to more conflict and ignominy. Even Cressida stumbles on the dual nature of that truth when she saucily jibes Troilus with a complaint about "lovers who swear more performance than they are able".
There's quite a bit of satire in Troilus and Cressida then, Shakespeare puncturing the commonly seen heroic aspect of the Greek and Trojan legends, bringing them crashingly down to earth. It would be a mistake then to try to counteract Shakespeare's characterisations with solemn gravitas. What it really needs, and what Gregory Doran permits, is full-blooded declamation that shows up such pomposity for the lie it is. In performance here at the RSC's 2018 production, that's best exemplified in Theo Ogundipe's hot-headed and touchy Ajax, in Amber James's sassy Cressida, in Adjoa Andoh's imposing Ulysses, in Oliver Ford Davie's wheedling Pandorus and particularly in Sheila Reid's fearlessly and comically outspoken Thersites.
Is there anything deeper in Troilus and Cressida than merely satire making fun of great heroes? Well, perhaps once again you just have to trust in the perspective adopted for the play, in Troilus and Cressida. In them Shakespeare doesn't just bring heroes down to earth, he mocks the whole dubious rationale for the Trojan War and the wider impact of war in general. In the seven years that they have reached adulthood, Troilus and Cressida have grown up and known nothing but war. It has not just impacted on their lives, it has determined their outlook on life and love, seeing nothing but vanity and betrayal, war and lechery. Can we see this as an insight into the impact of long running wars and treachery on society, what the true impact of the actions of great heroes has on ordinary people's lives.
It's possible, but Doran doesn't stress the point, leaving the play with its peculiarities and entertaining qualities to speak for themselves and allow such insights to arise naturally out of the production. The production design does much the same and proves to be highly effective. It's not slavish to period, it doesn't draw attention to anachronisms, it's more of a 'whatever works' approach and it works well, making a strong case for this underrated play. The music certainly has a strong bearing on the tone of the work, Evelyn Glennie's dissonant percussive-heavy score on created instruments almost like latter-day Scott Walker, the violence clashing with the lives of the characters. If there are any doubts about the consistency of tone this very much helps tie it together.
Recorded and broadcast to cinemas in High Definition, it's unfortunate that the RSC productions are now only available in Standard Definition on DVD and in NTSC format for region-free international distribution. As live theatre, the quality of these releases can vary depending on the lighting, but there are no real problems here with Troilus and Cressida. The image always remains clear and colours and tones are natural, the DD 2.0 and DD 5.1 mixes are clear and - with the music certainly - thundering. English subtitles are included. Extras include a director's commentary, interviews with some of the cast (Charlotte Arrowsmith makes a good case for the casting of a deaf signing person as Cassandra here, although she does feel shoehorned into productions elsewhere), a feature on the music composition, and a cast gallery. Colin Burrows provides a useful look at Shakespeare's view of a 'post-heroic age' in the booklet, which also contains a synopsis.