The Critics: Theatre: Ulysses goes to Troytown

Troilus and Cressida National Theatre, London Trust Royal Court, London Animal Crackers Lyric, London
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The Independent Culture
In Trevor Nunn's magnificent new production of Troilus and Cressida, the Greek generals are discussing what to do next about the Trojans. Agamemnon goes first. When he finishes, the others applaud. Then Nestor has his go. The others applaud again. Then Menelaus wants to speak. But Roger Allam's Ulysses cuts in first.

Allam doesn't muck about as he pinpoints the Greeks' problems in bitingly graphic and articulate terms. Eighty lines later, when Allam concludes his first big speech, there's an uncomfortable silence. None of the generals applaud.

Personally I felt like standing and cheering. After the mumbling disgrace of the National's Antony and Cleopatra, here was verse-speaking that was lucid, sardonic and impassioned. Allam's Ulysses is the engine that powers Nunn's production, matching a consummate command of verse with a thoroughly modern tone.

The clarity of his performance is matched by Nunn's bravura staging. He imports the techniques of the blockbuster musical, its scale, fluidity and use of simple contrast. Many of the atmospheric touches are subliminal. Birds caw, dogs bark, distant music plays; and a shift in lights takes us from the livid orange sunsets of North Africa to the dappled blue of the orchard at night. There is no clutter. Every detail is an effort to tell the story. We have front row seats on the plains of Troy.

In Nunn's hands, the huge Olivier stage shrinks. He proves you can fill it with only two people on fold-up stools, if one of them is Roger Allam. Nunn rearranges the text, swaps scenes about and splits them up. But the changes refocus the action and heightens the gap between the two camps.

White actors play the Greeks and black actors play the Trojans. When the Trojan princes return from battle they enter, individually, like sports stars entering a stadium. Each one runs barefooted down the centre aisle on to the arena of blood-red soil. As these white linen figures file past bowls of flames, we witness the pageantry of a warrior class in thrall to the concept of honour. Dhobi Oparei's lofty Hector has the physical stature of an American footballer, which he combines with a vulnerable candour.

Half a dozen actors vie to be the central character. David Bamber's Pandarus is a busybody, padding around in dressing gown and fez, fluttering his hands and dabbing his face. Jasper Britton plays the foul-tongued, pustular Thersites as a flapping, bird-like figure who can never take wing. He snaps back replies with vicious speed. But there's a warped, damaged idealism to Britton's Thersites that makes him far more endearing than Pandarus, who debases whatever he touches.

The Greek generals wittily lure Ajax into fighting. Usually, Ajax is a lumbering, fee-fi-fo-fum character. But Simon Day's Ajax is lean, and lumbers only in his mental processes. The Greeks visit the Trojans and together they face the walls of Troy. Allam's Ulysses tells Oparei's Hector that "yonder towers ... must kiss their own feet", and Oparei tells Allam that "the fall of every Phrygian stone will cost a drop of Grecian blood." Nunn brings both sides close together, as if for a team photo, as they stare out into the auditorium. There's a rare quality to the pause that follows. At the end, Sophie Okonedo's daringly, if at times doggedly, emphatic Cressida is left alone, silhouetted against the Trojan walls. An individual victim stands emblematically for her entire sex.

A sure sign of the honesty in the battle scenes is the way farce keeps intruding. Both Day's Ajax and Alexander Hanson's Diomedes try to fight Peter de Jersey's boyishly idealistic Troilus and end up slashing each other out of the way. This vigorous production throws up one intriguing performance after another: Denis Quilley's emotional old Nestor, hawking his phlegm into the soil, Oscar James's long-bearded, patriarchal Priam, and Daniel Evans's Patroclus, tense and alert as Achilles's boyfriend. David Burt's Menelaus has few lines, but is always in the frame, as he tries to regain his status, protected and hugged by Oliver Cotton's Agamemnon, and slighted or ignored by everyone else.

The big ideals of honour and love are filtered through a wide variety of wartime lives. The dissonances created by these glaring juxtapositions becomes the dominant tone in itself. It is one of epic irony, and it feels just right.

Northern Irish playwright Gary Mitchell has more than fulfilled the promise of last year's In a Little World of Our Own with his new play, Trust. It takes place in Rathcoole in North Belfast, where Mitchell still lives. He's brave, as Trust is no advertisement for the place. It is a taut thriller that builds to a riveting climax. Officially, Patrick O'Kane's Geordie is unemployed; unofficially, he's a Loyalist terrorist, who looks after any problems his fellow Prods might have.

Geordie's son has problems at school and a soldier wants to sell Geordie some guns. Mitchell interweaves these two stories, skilfully teasing us, as he withholds information and then throws in sudden turns of pace. He sets this violent world in a living room where they drink tea, watch the racing and do the ironing.

Trust succeeds at deepening our curiosity with each scene, until the idea of who trusts whom and who's protecting whom has infected every character. Laine Megaw is particularly good as Geordie's steely young wife. And Mick Gordon's brisk, intense direction is - to use a favourite phrase from the play - dead on.

When it comes to blunt put-downs, it's hard to beat Groucho Marx with the line, "How can someone be so ugly with just one head?" It's one of a stream of bad jokes, puns, and slapstick gags in the very funny Animal Crackers. I enjoyed Emil Wolk and Gregory Hersov's revival of the Marx Brothers' 1928 play and 1930 film when it opened as the Christmas show at the Royal Exchange, Manchester in 1996. Now it has reached the West End - where it deserves a good run.

It's a unique mix: in part it's a tribute show to the Marx Brothers with Ben Keaton, Joe Alessi and Toby Sedgwick capturing the anarchic comedy of Groucho, Chico and Harpo. It's also bang up to date, with ad libs and impro and larking around with the audience. On the first night this includes hoiking Tom Courtenay out of the front row of the audience to deliver a couple of lines. If this show runs and runs, they'll have problems finding members of the audience who can act ambushed quite as well as that.

`Troilus': RNT Olivier, SE1 (0171 452 3000) booking to May. `Trust': Royal Court Upstairs, WC2 (0171 565 5000) to 3 Apr. `Animal Crackers': Lyric, W1 (0171 494 5045) to 29 May.