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Troilus and Cressida

All the argument is a whore and a cuckold; a good quarrel to draw emulous factions and bleed to death upon.— Thersites
Troilus and Cressida
Marianne Oldham as Helen
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
Last year, Cheek by Jowl took Cymbeline and created a clear, lucid and fluid production out of one of Shakespeare's notoriously difficult plays to perform. Similarly, Troilus and Cressida is an abstruse, learned play which is invariably problematic on stage, but is here explicated with clear performances and a very definite interpretation which goes straight to the core of the play's meaning.

The central theme to this production is the deconstruction of heroism. The Homeric narrative is demythologised and exposed as pointless bloodshed and misconceived idealism. Not only is the brutality of this play left unameliorated, it is in fact sharpened into less forgiving, harsher strains. Each character has been thoroughly re-interpreted with this thematic crux in mind. Therefore, Troilus (Alex Waldmann) is no romantic hero, but rather a pontificator of useless, empty bombast. As Cressida (Lucy Briggs-Owen) characterises all lovers, so Troilus is played as having "the voice of lions and the act of hares". Cressida's soliloquies where she confides her love or contrition are excised. Instead of undermining the sympathy of her character, this makes it clear she is absolutely helpless under the exclusively masculine regime and her true feelings are irrelevant in her powerless vulnerability.

Again, Hector's (David Caves) sense of fair play is shown to be blind weakness rather than virtue, as he spares the lives of his enemies and thus imperils his family and whole city. There is no attempt to accord Achilles (Paul Brennen) any heroic strength or skill, and his glories are achieved by stealthy, dirty tactics. The great king of Troy, Priam (also played by Paul Brennen) is so fragile in his elderly state, that he is carried onstage and only speaks horizontally from his deathbed. Ulysses (Ryan Kiggell) is not played as the usual far-sighted pragmatist but is a lisping, awkward pen-pusher among his more macho allies. He wins his arguments not with expert persuasion but with blackmail-able photographs. Instead of being the bright hope for Troy, the herald prince Aeneas (Tom McClane) thrives too much on his speechifying and leads the deeply unpleasant testosterone-fuelled jeering which constitutes the Greeks and Trojans' means of communication.

Helen (Marianne Oldham) is given greater prominence, a reminder of her causal role in the bloodshed. In a white ball-gown she tantalisingly flirts with the lined-up soldiers or poses with Paris (Oliver Coleman) in celebrity photo shoots. She is the figurehead of a culture where the warriors parade in from the battlefield to the sound of applause.

Thersites (Richard Cant) is the only antidote to this implacably lethal spin; the only seer of the squalid truth in this world of corruption and deceptive, pernicious ideals. Cross-dressed with a Lily Savage accent, his main role in the camp is to clean the pedestals which the warriors stand upon. When he performs the masque for the benefit of the visiting Trojan princes, he is dressed as Helen and pretends to kill the warriors around him with a simple gesture. His onstage audience laugh uproariously, cheer and happily mime their deaths repeatedly, but it is a grimly prescient sequence.

Set on a traverse stage with long strips of canvas, one side ending in straight pillars and on the other, angled and unfurled, they represent the towers of Troy and the tents of the Greek camp respectively. Nick Ormerod's design is nicely interwoven with the direction and allows uninterrupted lines of movement across stage.

Compelling but bleakly unsettling, this production gives no quarter for hopefulness or softer sentiments. Cheek by Jowl's interpretation is incredibly thorough and coherent, providing a new insightful perspective on Shakespeare's text and focussing on the skewed, doomed or destructive loves and the deadly rhetoric and idealism which are central to this play.

Troilus and Cressida
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Declan Donnellan

With: Anthony Mark-Barrow, Paul Brennen, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Richard Cant, David Caves, Oliver Coleman, David Collings, Gabriel Fleary, Mark Holgate, Damian Kearney, Ryan Kiggell, Tom McClane, Marianne Oldham, David Ononokpono, Laurence Spellman, Alex Waldmann
Designer: Nick Ormerod
Associate Director and Movement: Jane Gibson
Lighting Designer: Judith Greenwood
Music: Catherine Jayes
Sound Designer: Gregory Clarke
Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0845 120 7511
Booking at the Barbican to 14th June 2008
and then on tour
2nd July — 6th July Teatre Lliure, Grec Festival, Barcelona, Spain
9th July — 12th July Almagro Festival, Spain
17th July — 26th July Matadero, Teatro Espanol, Spain
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 4th June 2008 performance at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS (Tube: Barbican)
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