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Troilus and Cressida

William Shakespeare
Cheek By Jowl
Barbican Theatre
(2008)

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Cheek By Jowl's latest venture in English presents one of Shakespeare's less popular works. However, director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod do their best to breathe life and vitality into a play that can get lost in words.

Ormerod has set up the theatre as a traverse with a five-ribboned catwalk on which the actors perform, often speaking words of love or hate from distances around a cricket pitch apart. The costumes are contemporary, verging on sci-fi for soldiers, which helps to make the text more accessible.

This is an ambitious work set during the Trojan Wars, commencing as the Greeks have besieged Troy for seven years following the defection of the legendary Helen, played by Marianne Oldham. The company has sensibly used costume for stark differentiation, the Greeks in black and the home team in camouflage fatigues that bring to mind today's American desert warriors.

The first half is slow, as a massive list of dramatis personae is literally trooped before us, in this case vainly marching up the catwalks. Declan Donnellan's solution is to give as many as possible lively, well-drawn and differentiated personalities.

With far too many to identify in a short review, it is necessary to focus on the main players but even then, ten or a dozen have significant roles in either love, war or both.

Alex Waldmann is a slight Troilus, brother to the mountainous Hector and lover to Lucy Briggs-Owen's Cressida, a fresh-faced blonde trapped on the opposite side of the front line from her faithless father.

When Pandarus, a humorous, louche David Collings introduces the pair, one expects sexual explosions but early on, while the wooing is amusing, the passion is muted.

Only after the interval does the evening really take off, as the love between Helen and Paris (Oliver Coleman) is mirrored by that of the titular couple, the depth of whose emotional entanglement becomes apparent when the girl is exchanged with the Greeks.

All that is then left is battle and truce, the latter oddly reflected in a gay cabaret scene! This makes some sense in the context of Greek homosexual shenanigans led by the shaven-headed Achilles (Paul Brennen) and his friend Patroclus (David Ononokpono) and mirrored by Ajax, played by Laurence Spellman as a kind of Glaswegian soccer thug, and Thersites (Richard Cant), who becomes the night-club chanteuse.

The best singing of the night, aided by Catherine Jayes' haunting music, comes from Marianne Oldham who reveals a voice as sweet as the face that launched 1000 ships.

The list of plaudits would not be complete without mention of Ryan Kiggell, who, by portraying Ulysses as a hesitant man amongst giants, makes him all the more credible.

Troilus and Cressida may not consistently show off Shakespeare at his best, but especially in the second half of the 200 minutes, there is much drama, a fair degree of humour and some very fine acting with the young leads to the fore.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher