It must be tough on some dramatic couples, perpetually being compared to young Romeo and even younger Juliet and always falling a little short of the mark when the votes for greatest love story are being cast. This seemed to be the fate of Shakespeare’s second string pairing in his much later play Troilus And Cressida. However, watching it again (and it is only the second time I’ve ever seen it) the inevitable conclusion is that this isn’t really a love story at all but rather a play about war and devious politics and how they serve to destroy a budding romance that barely has time to get going.
Shakespeare takes the Greek/Trojan war as the background to this particular story, but the action starts some seven years in when all the business with Helen’s abduction by Paris has long since passed and the conflict has reached a position of impasse where neither side can seem to gain much advantage. The play devotes pretty much equal time to both sides and the first of many difficulties with the drama is sorting out who’s who and what team they are batting for – not that this is always 100% consistent anyway.
I’d actually forgotten that the titular couple are on the same side, the Trojans, and unlike R & J the situation is rather more complex. Troilus falls for Cressida encouraged by the interfering of the latter’s uncle Pandarus. No sooner have they united though, than she is used as a bargaining tool for getting an important prisoner back; essentially Cressida is sacrificed for the perceived greater good. Confused and intimidated she falls into a liaison with Greek Diomedes and Troilus learning of this, and seeing the evidence with his own eyes, acts on the betrayal.
The rest of the play deals with the machinations of the Greek counsellors Ulysses and Nestor to force Achilles back onto the field of battle from where he has gone on furlough to be with his lover Patroclus. Ulysses in particular is an arch manipulator and engineers events towards his desired outcomes – very much the Dominic Cummings of his day – and effectively runs rings around everyone else including the actual Greek leader Agamemnon.
Delivering a running commentary on the inadequacies and follies of both sides is the scabrous Thersites, Ajax’s slave with a nice line in sarcasm and vitriol. There is little sense of any resolution at the end of the play. Both sides are still locked in stalemate, some tragic deaths have occurred and Troilus and Cressida’s relationship has been torn apart. The war will continue and the cycle of hopelessness will be repeated.
Greg Doran’s lucid Royal Shakespeare Company production helps to make sense of an essentially baffling piece which would otherwise merely demonstrate why it doesn’t get performed that often. It has been set in some kind of alternative reality, post-Armageddon world which offers more than a passing nod to the ethos of Mad Max in its costuming and setting designed by Niki Turner. Matt Daw’s lighting skilfully helps to delineate the many different locations and there is a thrilling percussive score from Evelyn Glennie and Dave Price which ups the adrenaline levels during scene changes and particularly in the battle scenes. The various fights are excitingly choreographed by Terry King.
Above all Doran has gone for some canny inclusive casting to give the whole thing weight and tension. Relative newcomers Gavin Fowler and Amber James play the lovers; James, in particularly, give an assured and spiky performance which perhaps goes a little too far in suggesting she would not quite so easily become a victim in the Greek camp. There’s plenty of himbo posing and muscle flexing from warrior heroes Ajax and Achilles (Theo Ogundipe and the suitably monikered Andy Apollo) both of whom tower hilariously over Sheila Reid’s Glaswegian ratbag of a Thersites. The deaf actor Charlotte Arrowsmith brings a totally fresh approach to the character of Cassandra and there’s heavyweight RSC power in casting Oliver Ford Davies as the despicable Pandarus. The most interesting aspect, however, is reserved for the Greek leaders Agamemnon and Ulysses. Veteran RSC artist Suzanne Bertish (brilliant in Nicholas Nickleby) makes a welcome return to add weight and authority to the Greek commander. Meanwhile, Adjoa Andoh more or less commands every scene in which she appears, speaks the text with real authority and makes Ulysses into the most interesting character in the play – perhaps someone should offer her the equally Machiavellian Richard III.
In my quest to work my way through Shakespeare’s works online during the pandemic, I had expected not to appreciate this particular play. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how well this 2018 production came over on screen particularly as it seems to have hit the appropriate moment with all its references to disease and death which pepper the text. If it’s one on your “to see” list, I’d encourage you to do so. It may not be as great a play as Romeo and Juliet but at least it will come up fresh.