Troilus and Cressida

William Shakespeare
An Edinburgh International Festival production, in association with the RSC
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Production photo

There are times, just times mind, when one feels that Betjeman, who famously had none for the Swan of Avon, might have had a point. Dunbar, in Catch 22, cultivates boredom in an effort to lengthen his lifespan, his theory being that the more bored a person is, the slower time passes. How we would have loved Peter Stein's production of Troilus and Cressida. Clocking in at an already daunting three and a half hours, it defies the laws of physics by appearing, like the Tardis in Doctor Who, infinitely vaster from the inside. Like the desert sands in Shelley's Ozymandias, the boundless wastes of the play stretch far, far into the distance.

It could be argued that the production, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fesitval, merely bodies forth the sense of inertia and torpor which is paralysing the Greek camp, seven years into the siege of Troy, as the play opens. In an early scene, Agamemnon presides over a war council all too familiar to anyone who has ever had the misfortune to sit through a parish council meeting. Agamemnon opens proceedings with an address which has all the passion of a speaking clock. Nestor nods off, only to outstrip Agamemnon in prolixity when he comes to speak. Even the cunning Ulysses talks with all the enthusiasm of a higher education lecturer 20 years into his job. But in choosing to mock the formality and notoriously knotty language of the play rather than bringing it to life, Stein deals it a death blow.

In no time at all one is reduced, like one of Larkin's 'Old Fools', to a state of slumped somnambulism. Visually, the production is frequently gorgeous to look at. Ferdinand Wergerbauer's set is a bare raked stage at the rear of which is a massive metallic wall which lowers to form the killing ground in the later scenes of fighting. Mercifully, the Stratford audience did not experience the technical problems which saw the wall jam and the play suspended for half an hour in Edinburgh.

The costumes by Anna Maria Heinreich, however, are an utterly bizarre mishmash. At first, during a slow-mo battle scene, it seems as if we are in for stock sword and sandal stuff, albeit the warriors are here accessorised with gilded codpieces. But the Greek war council seen here can be found convening on park benches in towns and cities across the UK. Agamemnon, bearded and bare-chested under a full-length leather coat, lacks only a bottle of Diamond White. The Trojan war leaders by contrast, sporting natty two-piece salmon pink trouser suits, draw their sartorial inspiration from TV series Star Trek: the Next Generation. Troilus, in a gesture perhaps of youthful defiance, affects the sort of chiffon scarf, - artfully flung across a shoulder, last seen on camp comedian Dick Emery 30 years ago.

The younger male cast members, to a man, look straight off the front covers of 'Attitude', or the like. They either have a serious gym routine, or else joined the Aussie cricket squad at their recent boot camp rendezvous. The stage is positively ankle-deep in ripped abs and rippling pecs. This Paul Raymond approach ahem, climaxes in the closet scene with Paris and Helen who descend on a scarlet bed from the ceiling. Scantily clad, they writhe in a forlorn stab at passion, the Hellenic world's answer to Peter Andre and Jordan, before Pandarus launches into the sort of sub Andre Lloyd Webber number I am trying my very hardest to forget.

To be fair, the last production I saw of this play, staged by another very experienced director, Terry Hands, was equally misbegotten. If, as US writer Harold Bloom maintains, Troilus and Cressida is full of pleasures (albeit 'peculiar' ones) then they are elusive. A better approach, demonstrated by shoestring Bristol company Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory a few years ago, seems to be to ignore the impulse to go for spectacle and concentrate on the text. Alone almost among the cast, Ian Hughes, as Thersites, manages to invest the production with energy and a sense of intent. Paul Jesson is initially promising as the eminently creepy Pandarus but soon falls victim to the fatal malaise which affects the production. It may be, as some maintain, the play is irredeemable, something which, like parts of our eastern coastline, has to be ceded to time, or it may be I haven't yet seen a production which can do this most problematic of problem plays, full justice.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Edinburgh International Festival

Reviewer: Pete Wood

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