Troilus and Cressida

William Shakespeare
BBC Shakespeare

Troilus and Cressida is the nearest thing we have to a "new" work by Shakespeare. It wasn't until the early twentieth century that the play was presented uncut and unaltered, and it's probably no coincidence that Troilus found its feet in the years immediately following the First World War; Shakespeare's treatment of the hypocritical and buffoonish Greek leaders (and their absurdly chivalric Trojan opponents) must have struck a chord with audiences. The play's difficult language and lack of a central star role have ensured that productions remain comparatively rare, so the release on DVD of Jonathan Miller's excellent 1981 production is particularly welcome.

Like most of the BBC Shakespeare series, Miller's Troilus is a studio-bound production using a Renaissance setting and costumes. This conservative "house style" (apparently a sop to the BBC's American partner, Time-Life Television) has been subtly undermined by Miller and his designer Colin Lowrey - the elegant loggias and houses of Troy turn out, on closer inspection, to be made of plywood decorated with cheap mouldings and DIY handles. It's a clever comment of the shallowness and empty rhetoric of Troy's doomed nobility. And thanks to the constraints of studio production the battle scenes are almost as claustrophobic as those set in the ramshackle Greek camp.

The titular lovers are played by Anton Lesser (who would later reprise the role in an acclaimed RSC production) and Suzanne Burden. Lesser makes his character's journey from besotted young lover to embittered man of the world wholly convincing, and Burden is a delightfully witty and intelligent Cressida. Her grief at being sent to join her turncoat father behind the Greek lines is overwhelming, so much so that the scene in which she is greeted by the Greek commanders doesn't quite ring true - would this Cressida really acclimatize herself quite so easily to her new life?

It can of course be said in her defence that Cressida's guardian, her uncle Pandarus, isn't exactly a shining moral example for a young person. The wonderful Charles Gray plays him as a gossipy, self-dramatizing old queen with a roving eye for handsome young men, and effortlessly steals every scene in which he appears. His eagerness to get the young couple into bed seems to be motivated by nothing more sinister than a genuine fondness for them both, yet another example of the well-meant but disastrous decisions that pervade the play.

The most difficult scenes to bring off are, notoriously, the long and contorted discussions amongst the Greek commanders. It's all too easy to stop concentrating and let the complex arguments flow over your head, but Benjamin Whitrow (Ulysses), Vernon Dobtcheff (Agamemnon), and Geoffrey Chater (Nestor) succeed in holding the attention. The scene in the Trojan council chamber, in which Hector (John Shrapnel) famously sets out the reasons for returning Helen then promptly decides to keep her, is equally gripping.

The supporting cast also give fine performances, particularly The Incredible Orlando as an outrageously camp Thersites. Anthony Pedley is a comically pea-brained Ajax, Paul Moriarty makes the most of the small but important role of Diomedes, and Kenneth Haigh's Achilles is so self-obsessed he seems more interested in trimming his beard than mourning the dead Patroclus. There are a few examples of odd casting and characterization - Tony Steedman is much too old for the role of Aeneas, Priam's son-in-law and the future founder of the Roman state, and Cressida's father Calchas (Peter Whitbread) is presented as a Trojan lord with a handy gift of prophecy rather than a priest (although it has to be said that such a character would be almost impossible to fit into the Renaissance setting, a problem which would also explain the cutting of the priest Helenus). But on the whole this is an outstanding production of a demanding but fascinating play.

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson

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