Troilus and Cressida
The Tobacco Factory, Bristol
Since it was founded three years ago, Bristol's Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company has gone from strength to strength. Their productions to date have found national acclaim and this month it was announced that the Barbican - formerly London home of the RSC - is in talks with the company with a view to staging their work.
It's a tribute to the actors, of course, and to the vision of director Andrew Hilton, the virtues of whose productions include an eschewal of gimmickry in favour of a focus on the text itself; a rigour of conception and a clarity of verse-speaking which at times has put the much larger, and publicly funded, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company to shame.
This, the company's fourth season, opens with Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare's seldom performed history/tragedy/comedy (take your pick - it's been classified as all three over the years), which dates from the mid-period of the writer's career.
The play opens in the seventh year of the siege of Troy by Agamemnon and his Greeks. The conflict is at a stalemate and dissension is growing in both camps. The Greek hero, Achilles, is growing increasingly arrogant and insubordinate, while in Troy, whose massive walls and towers defy continue to defy their opponents, there is argument over the merits of keeping the beautiful Greek Helen following her abduction by Paris.
The play could hardly be more topical, yet while Hilton thoughtfully updates the setting to the Edwardian age, pointing up the pressing relevance of its exploration of the nature of war and its corrupting effects, he suppresses any urge to push the parallels further.
At the centre of the theatre, part of a converted factory, are four iron pillars painted white and decorated with Roman-style frescoes, some depicting what Private Eye used to euphemistically call, 'Ugandan activities'. A few plants and the costume of Achilles - a cloak and headscarf - suggest a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern theatre of war.
But while romance is in the air between Trojan prince Troilus and Cressida, daughter of the Trojan seer Calchas, who, sensing the disaster awaiting the city, has fled to the Greek camp, the real romance here is the romance of war. The first half of this three-and-a-half hour show (with one interval) begins slowly. The war is at a frustrating stalemate. The language too is dense, difficult, concerned with the nature of honour, of true worth.
But the arrival of a challenge by the Trojan hero Hector to single combat galvanises the Greek camp and the play. Tom Sherman, as Ajax, struts and preens to comic effect; Alisdair Simpson as Achilles is every inch the self-regarding, larger-than-life hero.
The whole cast is fine; the diction, as ever, is crystal-clear with scrupulous attention to the meaning of the text. Among the stars of this production are Alisdair Simpson, Richard MacKay as the subtle Ulysses, Ian Barrit as the unctuous Pandarus, Lisa Kay as a gauche Cressida and, in a promising performance, Joseph Mawle as a passionate Troilus.
The size of the venue and its arrangement 'in the round', allow a thrilling intimacy, one of the major attractions of the venue which already enjoys sell-out performances. In perhaps the finest moment of the play, Cressida is greeted by Greek soldiers at their camp following an exchange of prisoners with the Trojans. The air is heavy with sexual menace, almost unbearably so, as Shakespeare and Andrew Hilton, lift the stone called war to show what else lurks underneath besides talk of honour, valour and heroism.
Mention must also be made of the excellent musical accompaniment provided by Richard Stephenson, Matt Sibley, Vicci Burke and Saskia Portway. Like many theatre-goers, I suspect, the play was unfamiliar to me and its sheer length and difficulty of language mean it's not one I would wish to see as often as, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream. But this production has much to commend it and the rise of the company looks set to continue.
Reviewer: Pete Wood