Theatre: Oh, what a lovely war

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WAY AHEAD of its time, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida had to wait until the present century to find an audience roughly on the right wavelength for its demythologising take on the Trojan War. When you've witnessed the masterly sweep and precision of focus in Trevor Nunn's new production, the historical puzzle is more why this play has had to wait more than 25 years to find a home in the Olivier Theatre.

Part of the problem arises from the vexed question of to what extent Shakespeare was trying to appeal to a knowing Inns of Court audience and the broader spectrum at the Globe. Having seen Nunn's staging, I'm convinced the dramatist would have jumped at the chance of the Olivier.

The epic open-stage, with its flavour of Epidaurus and its throwing of the audience into a dialectical role, might have been designed for the morally shoddy, set-piece debates in the rival camps - here played with a comedy in which cynicism is mixed with a curious charm by black Trojans in Middle Eastern white garb and white ancient Greeks in leather great coats. The circular acting area is the perfect arena both for those armed scuffles that here erupt, with a fierce suddenness, through the curved line of doors at the back, and for a tight, uncluttered scrutiny of the war-wrecked love story.

Nunn electrically intensifies the sense of queasy voyeurism in the great scene where Sophie Okonedo's heartbreakingly torn Cressida drifts into the arms of Diomedes, and is spied on by the betrayed Troilus, Ulysses (a superbly disingenuous Roger Allam) and Jasper Britton's brilliantly comic, scab-ridden scarecrow of a Thersites, who gets more and more casually bouncy with schadenfreude as the conflict conforms to his diseased, reductionist line on it. By having two rows of punters sit in a crescent right by the stage, the eavesdroppers in this scene crouch behind them, horribly implicating the audience.

Within its own terms, the production works like a dream; one might quarrel, though, with the terms. Nunn has argued against imbueing these emblematic heroes with too sophisticated a complicity with posterity's verdict on them. He wishes to emphasise the ironic poignancy that here they are performing these immemorial acts for the first time. Yet it seems that jarring intellectual time-frames are so built into the play that a production has wilfully to ignore them.

Likewise, it may be proper to rescue Cressida and Peter de Jersey's impulsive Troilus from the slur of being temperamentally doomed to a seedy one-night stand by stressing the importance of the sudden catastrophic call for an exchange of hostages which Nunn places at the start of the second half. On the other hand, it goes against the grain of their conversation to present the couple as a sort of mid-twenties Romeo and Juliet who, in the ironic vows scene, look set to break into a rendition of "Somewhere". The multiple virtues outweigh the niggles, however, and keeping my caveat close to my chest, I shall revisit this production as soon as possible.

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