Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse
Troilus and Cressida
RSC The Pit, EC2
Sir Ian McKellen has been repeatedly mocked for saying - when he moved to Leeds to play three roles in a new repertory company at the West Yorkshire Playhouse - that he was looking forward to getting back to the "soul of acting". What a slur on London! The louse! The luvvie!
What McKellen was actually saying (as I understood it) was that after playing a big barn such as the Olivier, with 1,100 seats, he was looking forward to playing in a theatre such as the 350-seater Courtyard in Leeds, where it might be possible to be more subtle and revealing, without belting it out for those in the cheap seats. Jude Kelly's terrific new production of triumphantly vindicates McKellen's point. Yeah, this one's got soul.
Close up, this fluid, boisterous Chekhov is full of witty and involving detail. The audience sits on both sides of a traverse stage, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins. Two doors stand at either end and spindly birches stick out of bleached planks. As with all traverse staging, we watch people watching the same event: just like sport.
McKellen gives this Seagull its centre, playing Dr Dorn with an avuncular warmth. His labrador face glows and chuckles and glints. As an actor, McKellen never strays far from a prop, whether it's for his hands or his mouth: a matchstick hangs from his lips in one act, a book-marker hangs from his lips in another. People become useful props too: he holds on to them, gives them hugs and kisses, and even leaps astride the ailing Sorin (Peter Laird) as he sits in his wheelchair. When he climbs off Sorin, McKellen fits in one extra piece of business as he catches his leg on the side and limps from the impact. Everything on stage gets blended into the McKellen mix.
The cast are hilarious when they sit down to watch Konstantin's lakeside production of his avant-garde new play. It's a typically rich moment with this lively ensemble, which boasts vivid performances from Clare Swinburne as the fiery-eyed Masha, Paul Bhattacharjee as her courteously dull husband, Medvedenko, and the choleric Willie Ross, with sideburns and monocle, as the estate manager Shamraev. Will Keen's febrile Konstantin demands absolute attention from Claudie Blakley's winning Nina. For the play within the play, his guests arrive with turn-of-the-century equivalents to Opal Fruits, wristwatch alarms and mobile phones; a cork pops, beer froths into a glass, a cigarette lights up. And Konstantin's mother, the actress Arkadina, strokes the inside of her lover's thigh and gradually moves on up.
As Arkadina, Clare Higgins's ear-rings bang from side to side as she grandly bustles round with the self-assurance of a mum organising the local gymkhana. When she wraps a bandage round Konstantin's head, she could be wrapping a ribbon round a maypole. If her career as an actress stalls, Higgins's Arkadina has a solid future as a literary agent. She seduces Timothy Walker's admirably semi-detached novelist Trigorin with shameless effectiveness ("such integrity, such simplicity ... I'm the only one who knows your true worth"). Within seconds, in Kelly's go-for-broke staging, they are under the dining table. Their feet stick out from beneath the linen cloth and Higgins's one visible arm bangs the carpet appreciatively. "Got him", she says, when she surfaces. Got us, too.
Troilus and Cressida continues to rise up the Shakespeare charts. Until the First World War, it malingered at the bottom of the heap, with the Times in 1907 saying it was "better left unacted". Now it is in the Top 10. The RSC did it two years ago with Joseph Fiennes. The Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park did it this year. Trevor Nunn was planning a production at the National until the RSC nipped in (again) with a touring production. "Now good or bad, 'tis but the chance of war": the play's ambiguity and cynicism hits the mark: only the costumes are an embarrassment. Director Michael Boyd solves that by setting his Troilus and Cressida in the Spanish Civil War. William Houston's grimy Troilus, rag in hand, resembles a garage mechanic emerging from under a car chassis. With Catholic modesty, Jayne Ashbourne's Cressida wears a brown print dress and a little crucifix for a necklace. Roy Hanlon's raffish Pandarus has a crumpled linen suit, panama and bow-tie, while the crisper Greeks wear off-the-peg grey suits. Both sides carry knives, revolvers and rifles. As the rival nations run on and off, the main observable difference is that the Greek forces are in possession of a trouser-press.
The cast speak in Irish accents: this company is also presenting Brian Friel's version of Turgenev's A Month in the Country. Of course Troilus and Cressida is a Mediterranean story, so Spain, albeit an Irish Spain, has an appropriateness. But as we move between the camps, the Homeric struggle shrinks to local skirmishes between neighbouring villages. The fight between Achilles and Hector is a tavern brawl, with one hitting the other with a crate. When Priam sits at the end of the Trojans' trestle table in his brown pinstripe, with his Duralex glass filled with plonk, he might be Catalonia's answer to a local mafia boss.
There are moments when Boyd overstates. Lloyd Hutchinson's dusty Thersites greets us with reddened eyes, a tubercular grin, a flashbulb and a slide- show. Paul Hamilton's Ajax stomps around, growling in his deepest (if not deep enough) register. And Cressida's arrival at the Greek camp turns into a director's party piece that makes Cressida's character impossible to follow.
Mostly, the transposition is illuminating and effective. As with Michael Attenborough's recent Romeo and Juliet for the RSC, what we lose in grandeur and breadth we gain in intimacy and accessibility. There are many neat touches: the Greeks, for instance, secretly shoot Patroclus in order to provoke his lover Achilles to rejoin the war. Colin Hurley's Ulysses is a business-like politician at war, while William Houston's Troilus, with eager rustic energy, has the unusual advantage of not sounding drippy when he says: "I am as true as truth's simplicity."
'': Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse (0113 213 7700), to 5 December; 'Troilus and Cressida': RSC Pit, EC2 (0171 638 8891), to Saturday.Reuse content