Troilus and Cressida
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
One of Shakespeare’s less-chosen offerings, this sprawling panorama of battles and arguments can often present a pretty unpalatable prospect.
In this highly-visual and constantly surprising production it is nothing of the kind.
Given the constantly changing settings and the large cast of verbose and tediously military characters, there is always a danger that Troilus and Cressida becomes a series of broadly similar set-pieces culminating in a series of broadly similar battles.
Gregory Doran manages to steer matters well away from those problems and does so in a way that shows the theatre and its resources in the strongest way they’ve appeared for a while.
To begin with the casting of some very strong women into the ranks of warriors creates a much wider base of character types. It must surely be a coincidence that the nation’s Dr Who fans are enjoying an equally liberating change, but in Troy as in the Tardis quality soon overcomes any quirkiness.
The set pieces are all taken individually. Where there is scope for comedy it is injected and always to excellent effect. If it needs to be loud it is. Crucially, where there is the chance to ease off the volume and rein in the pace, that is taken too. It’s refreshing amid all the bombast and spear-shaking to find the truly tender and the genuinely funny.
The courting scene between the title characters – Gavin Fowler and Amber James – is an absolute joy, their stumbling nervousness prodded along with well-intentioned interference by Pandarus (a fine tour de force from RSC veteran Oliver Ford Davies).
Tender too are the exchanges between Achilles and Patroclus (Andy Apollo and James Cooney). The undercurrent of there being something a little stronger than mere hero worship is not left as an undercurrent in this production. Hastily refastened trousers, smouldering looks and far-from-platonic embraces leave no question unanswered.
Niki Turner’s visually striking design adds to the feeling that this production wanted to be as varied as possible. Height – in the form of a wonderful hanging, swaying collection of bronzed pieces – went hand in hand with depth as the row of shipping container-like tents was shoved back to offer the theatre’s stage at its largest and most open for the closing sequence of fights taken at the run.
Evelyn Glennie’s score is much less percussive than could be feared and – but for the occasional shattering entrance – avoided the worst excesses of underscoring the acting, instead providing a wistful note to accompany the pounding drums of war.
There are some tremendously strong performances throughout the company. Suzanne Bertish (Agamemnon), Theo Ogundipe (Ajax), Sheila Reid (Thersites) and Geoffrey Lumb (Paris) all impress, though in truth there are few who don’t.
In the week the company said a final goodbye to the woman responsible for so much of the vocal clarity we’ve come to expect at Stratford, only occasionally did someone fall foul of the ‘chop it up and shout it’ problem that can spoil the odd scene.
The production looks good with a mix of traditional and urban warrior. And, of course, there is an abundance of impressively-oiled pecs on show, just as the bard undoubtedly wished.
Going purely by the traditional content of much of classical literature you’d expect Troilus and Cressida to be fairly relentless, full-on seriousness. That this production is anything but that, is a testament to the possibilities presented by a good cast and top technical elements all under the control of someone with a very wide and controlled vision.
Visit rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.