Troilus and Cressida

            It is important to note right away that Cheek By Jowl have already tried their hand at Shakespeare. The director of their 2004 production of ‘Othello’, Declan Donnellan, has assembled the largest cast the company has ever put on stage and turned to one the Bard’s lesser-known and more problematic plays. Tracing a troubled period in the Trojan War, ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is on the one hand a love epic of two young Trojans and on the other a gritty play critiquing the systems of war and battle honour. With a noticeably minimal set in the main of theatre of The Barbican, and returning their favoured traverse staging, I waited for the lights to lower to see what Donnellan would do with this mixed bag of a text. On paper, the play combines the best parts of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with the military elements of the Histories cycle to create a decent but not always easy balance of love and war.

            This means play itself is a ‘slow burner’, needing time to set up the numerous plot strands, and by consequence the first of half this production lagged. The choice to modernise speaking patterns was handled well by some actors but others did not even grasp the meaning of what they were saying. Oliver Coleman’s Paris was a disastrous performance, causing the audience around me to move around in their seats in squeamish discomfort. Many of the actors seem to have confused passion with shouting and when combined with some of the strong regional accents in the cast it made for very difficult listening. Laurence Spellman as the mighty Ajax lost many of his lines because of this combination and unfortunately for the most part could not be understood.

            Donnellan also used his first act to lay the grounds for his exploration of sexuality and eroticism. His choice to have Richard Cant play Thersites as a drag queen-cum-transsexual was a hard puzzle to decipher. Bursting onto the stage dressed in a workman’s boiler suit, brandishing what look liked a bottle of Cif and cloth and splashed with make-up I was at first intrigued and was almost prepared to let Cant get away with it and see where this device was going. Upon opening his mouth however a voice very much like, if not exactly like, Paul O’Grady’s pierced out from between his lips, making for an off-putting performance. Cant’s performance is quite obviously based on day time television presenter’s famous drag queen alter ego, Lily Savage, and this uncanny impersonation did not seem to fit the tone of the play.

            However, by the start of the second act all the puzzle pieces fell into place. Cant came into his own, and turned out to be the key to Donnellan’s exploration of love and desire. One particular delight was a scene where Cant appears dressed in a ball gown and plays the host in a bizarrely placed yet brilliant cross-gendered cabaret in Achilles’ tent. The relationship of Achilles and his cohorts also blooms in the second half, giving him the convincing drive needed for his final showdown with Hector.

The leads, Alex Waldmann as Troilus and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Cressida, shone throughout the play bringing a youthful counter-point and an injection of life into the longer scenes of military squabbling. Briggs-Owen was the true star of this production whose timid yet strong and youthful heroine made for an enthralling watch. Other notable mentions go to David Caves as Hector and Ryan Kiggell as the most worried and stuttery Ulysses that I have ever seen.

            From a design standpoint Donnellan took a chance to really explore the visual elements of the show, giving rise to some truly amazing set pieces. Paris and Helen’s awkward dialogues were broken up by a publicity photo shoot, an inspired rethinking of genuinely boring scene and a sly critique of celebrity culture, while Troilus’ final speech was spoken whilst being flanked by two giant human shadows, proving how effective a bare set and a pair of spots can really be.

            Cheek By Jowl’s monopoly on cutting edge and experimental theatre now extends to the realm of Shakespeare. If you get a chance to see this show, try to stick out the first act. By the second half, you will realise that you just needed to see the wood through the trees. A wholly gratifying and thought-provoking experience.  

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