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July 09, 2012

Troilus and Cressida (1623 Theatre) @ Online

Writing about web page

A fascinating experiment from my friends at 1623 Theatre began in earnest today. At the website, a coughing, bearded soldier is delivering daily video updates from an underground bunker. In the aftermath of a nuclear war that killed ten billion souls, fought between two rival powers over a celebrity called Helen, Pandarus is leaving messages to warn future generations of humanity against the evils of war by narrating the story of his niece Cressida and her love Troilus.

The videos are, so far, only a couple of minutes long apiece, but the website is packed out with "Pandarus"'s other materials - photos and videos that build up the picture of a post-nuclear world, and links to Japanese websites that promote Pandarus's sense of a better world. It'll be fascinating to see how the project progresses, and I urge you to keep an eye on it.

August 21, 2009

Troilus and Cressida @ Shakespeare's Globe

Writing about web page

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.

June 02, 2008

Troilus and Cressida @ The Barbican

Cheek by Jowl's new English-language production, Troilus and Cressida, seems to be one of those that is already polarising people. In just the day and a half since I saw it I've already heard from people who loved it and others who loathed it, and the reviews ranged from Michael Billington's 4-star praise in the Guardian to John Peter's damning 1-star review in the Sunday Times. Fortunately, it's only my own opinion I have to worry about, so I'll let the debate rage at a later date.

This was unmistakable, classic Cheek by Jowl from the off. The traverse seating created a long, thin playing area which director Declan Donnellan made full use of. Long strips of white cloth ran the length of the stage and, at the ends, rose steeply to the ceiling (designer Nick Ormerod clearly developing the visual themes introduced in Twelfth Night). The only set consisted of a series of 16 small crates/blocks that were continually moved about to form chairs, platforms and so on. The dark aesthetic of the set and costumes, almost entirely black and white save for the actors' skins, allowed Judith Greenwood's spectacular lighting design to play a key role in creating environments with beautiful moments such as the throwing up of three enormous shadows onto the wall as Troilus reported Hector's death.

The play opened with the glamorous Helen, played with expert poise by the elegantly-dressed Marianne Oldham, strolling casually up and down the stage before delivering the prologue to the audience. Helen was given unusual prominence in this production, Donnellan using her to sexualise the Trojan war, imagining it as a series of conflicts between love and lust. This was emphasised powerfully at the start of the second act. Helen was added to the scene in which Paris and Diomedes discuss Helen's merits, the two lovers naked under sheets and lying centrally. Walking off in opposite directions, and casting off their sheets as they left the stage, they gave way to Troilus and Cressida who entered chasing each other playfully before taking the place vacated by Helen and Paris. The two revelled in their new-found sexuality, both flashing Pandarus in mockery as the old man leered over his discovery of them. Not long after the couple's separation, their place in bed was yet again usurped, this time by Achilles and Patroclus. The triply-repeated image, recurring in participants from all sides of the war, placed sex visually at the centre of all the character's actions.

Sex, or the lack thereof, was key elsewhere. Oliver Coleman's Menelaus (significantly doubled with Paris, the man who cuckolded him) was sexually frustrated, perhaps impotent, and was pointedly made the butt of everyone's jokes. He retaliated in a moment of threatened violence at Cressida's refusal to kiss him, an awkward moment in the Greek's joviality which was skated over quickly. Ulysses, a nervy Ryan Kiggell, was surprisingly bookish and awkward and, again, it was sex where he seemed to lack experience, allowing Cressida to gull him into crawling on his knees begging like a dog for a kiss while the rest laughed at him.

Awkwardness and unpleasantness marred several of the characters. Perhaps most interesting was Alex Waldmann's Troilus, a short and young man awed by his big brother Hector, in a strong performance by David Caves. As Pandarus and Cressida watched the Trojans parade, Hector paused centrally to go through maneuveres with his sword, swinging it expertly. Troilus followed close behind and tried to copy him, but far more clumsily, and it was left to Hector to correct his little brother. Troilus' immature enthusiasm for love and war were his emotional downfall, leaving him vulnerable to hurt. His dismissal of Cressida on the news of the prisoner exchange was shockingly abrupt, he accepting the decision as just a part of what the larger game of war demanded. Later, as Hector armed for war, he leapt into his brother's arms in a final gesture of childish dependence.

Lucy Briggs-Owen was similarly interesting as Cressida, dressed distinctly unglamorously in trousers and a vest-top throughout. She was an everyday Cressida, a normal girl dealing with emotions she didn't understand. Her initial meeting with Troilus was wonderful, she unhappy about the whole thing and irritated by her uncle continually poking her in the back, to the point of trying to storm out, but eventually won over by Troilus' simple enthusiasm. By the time of the parallel scene with Diomedes, as the hidden onlookers crouched in far corners of the stage, she had become far more sexually aware (as was apparent during her introduction to the Greeks as she slowly started trying out her power over them, culminating in her humiliation of Ulysses) and her frantic attitude with Diomedes belied her confusion - sexually aroused by the thug who treated her so brutally (often hitting her), loyal to an innocent memory of a former love and seductive as she tried to get what she wanted - only, she didn't know what that was.

The Trojans, dressed in white vests and trousers and armed in white knee- and shoulder-pads, seemed more innocent in general than the shaven-headed and black-clad Trojans. Diomedes was little more than a football thug, Ajax a volatile Scot and the well-spoken Achilles, played by Paul Brennen, a quietly dangerous man. The meeting of the two sides following Ajax and Hector's duel (won easily by Hector, and stopped with no reference to their family relation, an odd omission) was revealing about both sides. The Trojans came off best, Hector vaunting slightly but generally noble while the Greeks bickered and jostled among themselves.

They were entertained by Richard Cant's Thersites, a transvestite modelled closely on Lily Savage, even down to the Scouse accent (which wasn't a great accent, but then it's my native one so I'm bound to be picky). Thersites was the Greek's cleaner, giving him/her ample opportunity to banter with Patroclus, who was here a young, pretty and headstrong boy who spent most of his time doing tai-chi when not lying with Achilles. Cant's Thersites was a bawdy entertainer who got some cheap laughs with antics such as spraying disinfectant in Patroclus' face, but excelled in an invented cabaret scene where s/he entertained the Greek and Trojan troops, mocking the Greeks in turn through a microphone, sitting on laps, teasing Hector and, for a grand finale, changing from a black number into an exact copy of Helen's dress in order to taunt Menelaus. The scene, marking the depravity on both sides (Hector joined in with gusto), went further to highlight the collapse of standards through sexual transgression.

The production dragged a little at the start, but the second act was powerful and exciting. Hector's grossly unfair death, at the hands of several masked Myrmidons who surrounded him and bore him down between their shields, was a particular highlight. This was a play without redemption, without much even in the way of hope, and Pandarus ultimately summed up the tone in his bitter and sincere bequeathing to us of his diseases while the rest of the company stared at us. A bleak and powerful experience.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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