Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 17 November 2018
“I had forgotten,” said a companion as we staggered out, deafened by the final outbreak of crazed metallic drumming, “how syphilitic that play is.” Not a bad word for it: or try bitter, angry, violent, messy: more than almost any other Shakespeare play it rages at irredeemable human stupidity and anarchic unreason. Which makes it curiously modern: Jarry or Beckett would nod approval. The director Gregory Doran helpfully gives us in the programme some of the great John Barton’s notes, accepting that it is “comical, tragical, historical, mythical, political, …cynical, romantic, obscene, Homeric, medieval, intellectual, poetic and absurdist”.
Set in an endless, pointless war, the sheer mess of its politics and its refusal to let any character be a hero or an innocent make you leave feeling oddly braced. That, combined with deafeningly dramatic outbreaks of percussive music by Evelyn Glennie on any number of bizarre strikeable instruments, not to mention an appearance by about ten giant trumpets mounted on a bicycle.
Oh, and the fact that it opens with the crashing arrival of Greek and Trojan warriors on roaring motorbikes: you expect Meat Loaf to descend from the ceiling any minute. Though when a cage does descend from a crazy metallic muddle of random discarded armour hanging overhead, it is a cool narrator to inform us that we are seven years into a war between the Greeks and Troy, after the abduction of Helen by the Trojan Paris.
The political action begins with each set of princelings debating what to do – Adjoah Andoh’s elegantly creepy Ulysses laying out the problem at inordinate length on the Greek side, and the Trojans doing their best to ignore the raving, raggedly demented but unfortunately accurate warnings of Cassandra (Charlotte Arrowsmith, truly terrifying, gulping and screaming in prophetic terror).
But before that, we have noted the love affair of the title: Oliver Ford Davies as a benignly obscene Pandarus furthering his niece’s relationship with Troilus, which is going to help spark the final disaster. Gavin Fowler and Amber James are touching in their all too brief conjunction, but so is Pandarus in his way: his shock at realising that Cressida is a prisoner-exchange to the Greek camp seems wholly genuine: he is one of the more well-meaning of the play’s multiple misjudgers.
It does take patience sometimes: dense intricate speeches with the senselessness of the war ever more apparent. But Doran’s meticulous production works all the laughs too: Andy Apollo’s glorious bare-chested Achilles avoiding single-combat with Hector by hanging out in his tent and doing weights and press-ups with his sweet bare-tummied lover Patroclus (actually the sanest of the characters). And there’s Sheila Reid’s tiny, mocking, gnomelike Thersites taking the mick out of them all, funny in her irrepressibility then suddenly creepy in gloating voyeurism as Cressida betrays her lost love. There’s joy too in Theo Ogundipe as a gloriously preening macho Ajax, up for any fight. The theme of reputation recurs, Troilus and Cressida vowing not to become eternal by-words for infidelity, and golden-haired Achilles always worried about whether he is worshipped enough.
But as the story darkens with Cressida’s capture there is real, visceral, obscene horror in the extraordinary scene where each of her Greek captors demands a kiss. For this is a play about women as pawns of war, trophies, objects of derisive desire. It feels horribly current. The terrible story sweeps you up: the vigour, the clamour, the extraordinary racket of macho metallic madness, shield and sword echoing Glennie’s extraordinary score and at last nightmare . When Achilles is driven to fight, his “myrmidons” are half-ludicrous and half alien, dark horned creatures right out of Dr Who. It is a puzzle, an oddity, a cry of rage : it builds to a climax you don’t forget.
box office http://www.rsc.org uk to 17 November