Declan Donnellan's clear conceptualisation of the cynicism of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, in which all is "war and lechery", gives scope for some memorable performances in this Cheek by Jowl production. Paul Brennen as the Greek general Achilles and David Caves as the Trojan prince Hector expose the self-indulgent vanity of the top brass on both sides of the Trojan war. The costumes are part-Grecian, part-Nazi, part-colonialist, alluding to more recent conflicts.
Donnellan draws attention to the language patterns that underline the pretensions of the Greek and Trojan camps, as when Troilus says of Cressida, "Why, she is a pearl/ Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships", a mocking reference to Marlowe's depiction of Helen. The overly verbose language makes him into a put-upon little critter, hopelessly out of his depth and bemused as much by the feisty Cressida as he is by war and politics.
Thersites, the Greek camp servant, is played as a foul-mouthed transvestite, a wonderful directorial imagining. The dance in the second act brings surprising moments of real pathos to this testosterone-infused environment. If symbolically charged, stylised dances are fashionable (one thinks of Katie Mitchell's Women of Troy at the National earlier this year), this one is not to be missed.
The women are portrayed as having few options in life: as Cressida says, "I wished myself a man/ Or that we women had men's privilege." Though she is posturing when she flirts with Troilus, we sense sincerity in her words. She and Helen (brilliantly played by Marianne Oldham) use their female attributes as far as they dare, paying a high price for aspiring to power and independence in a patriarchal world. Donnellan draws parallels between the female characters and Thersites, emphasising the role-playing strategies of those lower down the pecking order. The cross-dressing is a reminder of the absence of women to play female roles in Elizabethan times.
This is an innovative, pared-down and very humorous production that draws its contemporary parallels deftly. Shakespeare gives Cressida some stunning lines that are not delivered to best effect in the boisterous performance of Lucy Briggs-Owen, and the scene with the dying King Priam lacks gravity, but overall, this production is a joy.
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