No Shakespeare play feels more bitterly disillusioned than this cynical debunking of the heroic mythology of war. Its pessimistic scepticism chimes with the spirit of the age and there has been a run of incisive recent productions. But Declan Donnellan manages to offer a remarkably fresh, arresting and sometimes controversial vision of the piece in Cheek by Jowl's new staging at the Barbican.
The boldness and lucidity of this modern-dress account is evident from the opening lines. The sonorous Prologue is here delivered by Marianne Oldham's Helen, who wafts round the assembled troops, fondling sword-points and flashing an impervious celebrity smile. You're never allowed to forget that "All the argument is a whore and a cuckold" in this conflict, and later we see Helen and Oliver Coleman's dim hunk of a Paris posing for Hello magazine-style photographs.
The production finds witty ways of cutting the heroes down to size. In their plastic protective gear, the big names of the Trojan army resemble a cross between big-headed American sport stars and Action Men dolls as they parade on and lap up the applause.
Ryan Kiggell's Ulysses may identify the cause of the malaise in the Greek camp, but there's nothing lofty about his delivery of the "degree" speech. He reminds you of a nervy academic – a manner that proves to be the disguise of a Machiavellian when, contradicting his own arguments, he distributes sexually compromising photos of Achilles and Patroclus.
Nick Ormerod's beautiful traverse-stage design is hung with strips of canvas besmirched with faded blood, which evoke bandages and the stained annals of war. For all that it is vividly alert to the discrepancies between the publicity-machine's lies and the sordid realities, this is not a production that settles for facile nihilism. Rather, it mourns the gap between ambition and achievement. Your attention is drawn to the flaws in David Caves's charismatic Hector, but there's an overwhelming sense of sorrow in the stunningly staged scene where he is slaughtered. The frenetic Troilus of Alex Waldman and Lucy Briggs-Owens' touching Cressida convince you that their love is more the victim of circumstance than of moral deficiencies.
The most egregious performance is from Richard Cant, who reinvents the scabrous Thersites as a viciously embittered transvestite – a Lily Savage skivvy in marigolds who is then dolled up as Marlene Dietrich for a ceasefire cabaret that, revealingly, turns into a homoerotic holiday from duty.
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