Troilus and Cressida @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Firstly, thanks to the Edinburgh International Festival, there is a whole website of production photographs for this play, far too many to show here- you can see more at http://www.eif.co.uk/galleries/tandc2/?PHPSESSID=4c62742405b330dd95ccaedd678327a8 .
This was, as you can tell from the pictures, a production that aspired to the epic. From the pre-recorded and lavish music to the enormous walled set, from the huge cast to the top-drawer associations of director Peter Stein, this carried the same weight as the Ninagawa ‘Titus Andronicus’, and aimed at the same kind of production. Unfortunately, although there was much wonderful about the production, it didn’t pull it off.
The thing which really spoiled the production was the mess made of scene changes, which were far too ambitious. For a very brief scene on the walls of Troy, the entire bronze back wall slid ominously forward, very slowly. Very slowly. So slowly that the audience were looking at their watches- and once the scene began, it was immediately clear that there was no reason for the move. Worse were the tents which, in a move lifted from Les Miserables, spiralled in from the wings in two parts to meet in the middle. However, they span as if from Fantasia, and moved as if the Flintstones were beneath, picking them up and scuttling them across- not to mention how long they took to move them as well. Quite simply, an audience should never be laughing at the ridiculousness of a scene change, and unfortunately these unnecessarily complicated maneuveres were just awful.
That gripe aside, the production was quite good. The highlight was a very funny Thersites who dominated his scenes, commenting wryly on the action while limping on account of his boils. I could go as far as to say he was one of the funniest clowns I’ve seen onstage in a long time, Costard excepted.
The two young leads both gave solid performances, bringing out even from the start the anxieties and fears of first love. This being an Edinburgh show, nudity was on the agenda, but relatively tastefully done, an inexperience Troilus and Cressida both taking off each other’s tops and staring in awe, juxtaposed nicely with their hurried dressing the morning after. In the other love scene, Helen descended on a luxury canopy from the ceiling to a seedy jazz score for a very funny scene.
The battle scenes benefitted from an impressively sloped stage and certainly looked the part. The fights were badly directed though, some of the soldiers mincing on, taking a gentle swipe and then distractedly wandering off again, and at one point part of Hector’s weapon flew into the front row of the audience at high velocity, causing a moment’s concern among the audience.
Where this play excelled was in the onstage relationships. The performances of the soldiers, particularly Julian Lewis Jones as Ajax and David Yelland as Ulysses, were all very good,and Vincent Regan made for an exceptionally nasty Achilles, by the end dressed in stringy black robes and prancing on to catch the unarmed Hector. Patroclus gazed longingly at Achilles and shoved him away in anger after the revelations about Achilles’ mistress, and Pandarus snarled creepily at the audience as he bequeathed them his diseases. Even long talking scenes such as the first council were broken up by amusing moments with Nestor and Ulysses bickering. These were the moments when the production truly came to life, and the faults of the over-reaching design could be forgiven.
Overall, there was an excellent production at the play’s core but let down by some severe flaws of direction and design. The performances were very good, and it certainly trod the line well between comedy and tragedy.
My one final gripe was with the ending (hoping not to spoil it too much for people who haven’t seen it yet)- Pandarus brought Cressida in, urging Troilus to speak to her. Troilus cast her down, and then ran straight into his death at the spearpoints of five Myrmidons. While this made for a powerful final image, of the ailing Pandarus in the centre, Troilus’ body at one side and a weeping Cressida at the other, it dramatically changed the sense of the play and seemed to suddenly ‘decide’ in the final moments that it was definitely a tragedy after all. Interesting, and I can understand why it was done, but I think on the whole I preferred the more ambiguous ending of Shakespeare, where neither lover sees each other again and both live.