THEATRE / The pity of war: Jeffrey Wainwright on Tara Arts' production of Troilus and Cressida at the Contact Theatre, Manchester

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The Independent Culture
Shakespeare is our familiar, he is 'ours'. In Illyria or Denmark he is still English and so we know what he is about. Whatever variations producers devise, a sense usually comes across of the work being approached from the inside.

This is not the assumption of Jatinder Verma's new Tara Arts / Contact production of Troilus and Cressida. His intention is to defamiliarise. The predominantly Asian styling of the show (designed by Magdalen Rubalcava) - burnt-orange tunics, music, dance and the powerful use of Indian martial arts - is the most prominent means to this. But Steve Roberts has also lit the wide-open stage almost exclusively from the top and side. Little light is shed from our direction - we are not the sun that illuminates this world.

The lovers are played by male actors, Troilus by Andrew Mallett in the classic English style of strong enunciation and upright presence (and very well too), Cressida by Yogesh Bhatt with a muted vulnerability at its most expressive as she stands alone before the lecherous appraisal of the Greeks. They do no more than pass her shawl around but the sense of violation is potent.

Cressida here is emphatically victim rather than faithless coquette; but, in Verma's production, she is a victim of the Greeks rather than of the men of both sides. Modern views of the play have tended to insist on the sordid venality of Greek and Trojan alike as the meaningless war drags on. Here the Greeks' posturing pomposity is conveyed by their ludicrously mannered speech and movement, but the Trojans are altogether more sympathetically presented. In a play usually taken to be anti-heroic, they have more than a measure of heroism restored to them.

It is, however, an embattled, defeated heroism. Verma sees Troy as the besieged East (Bosnia, British Asians), and the Greeks as the triumphalist West at its most self- confident and xenophobic. In any production the role of Thersites is pivotal. The sardonic wisdom of Shelley King's 'bitter fool' comes not from a comic grotesque, but from a dignified, if world-weary, servant. It is theoretically an interesting interpretation, but, in practice, limiting. Moreover, playing Thersites as a dispassionate commentator runs counter to the overall interpretation, since his viewpoint is so relentlessly reductive: cuckolds versus cuckold- makers, no more, no less.

But, then, this is a difficult play, both thematically and technically: with its profusion of talkative characters and its odd construction, it is always a challenge to the audience. This production does not do enough to ease the difficulties. The story is simply not told clearly enough. The uniform costuming, elegant as it is, makes it yet harder for the cast of seven to make each of three, or even five, characters distinguishable, and despite its visual colour, the production often seems flat and one-paced. Demandingly against the liberal grain, the approach to the text is fascinating; but, especially for the young audiences Contact aims at, it is vital that the basic narrative should be equally absorbing.

To 23 Oct, Contact Theatre, Devas St (University): 061-274 4400