Theatre Troilus and Cressida RSC, Stratford

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The Independent Culture
Ian Judge is a director who could bring out the feelgood factor in Oedipus Rex. He's the man who converted the complex tonalities of Twelfth Night into a crudely reassuring, tourist-friendly entertainment, replete with a cosy Stratford skyline of half-timbered houses. A Christmas Carol for Judge is a work that needs beefing up in the sentimentality department: hence the ton of icing sugar he tipped over it in his RSC staging. Grown men quailed at the prospect of what he might do to the mordantly nihilistic world of Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare's systematically anti-heroic take on the Trojan War.

It's a relief to report, then, that there are sequences of real power in his new account of the play on the Stratford main stage. True, it's by no means free from those trademark "winning" details. In the scene where the Greek leaders pass by Achilles and Patroclus and tactically affect an airy disregard for the couple, Colin Farrell's Menelaus quite unnecessarily treats the audience to a naughty scamp's conspiratorial smile of pleasure while plodding off, encouraging us to see this scheme as a waggish wheeze rather than the ironic violation of Ulysses's famous "degree" speech that it actually constitutes.

It's possible, too, that Richard McCabe, who is natural casting for Thersites, might, with another director, have brought a darker drivenness and more repulsive Schadenfreude to this balefully reductive choric commentator. His over-ingratiating performance isn't helped, at points, by the design, which has him watching the scene of Cressida's treachery and Troilus's deranged response from a deep downstage trench. In a drama where voyeurism plays so potent a part, you want to monitor every second of his goggling reaction.

Touches like having the Trojan army strip off for communal ablutions and love birds Paris and Helen emerge naked from a sunken steam bath for some determined foreplay make the audience uneasily complicit in the rampant voyeuristic oglings on-stage of Clive Francis's raddled, flesh-creeping queen of a Pandarus. With him around, it's a wonder that Troilus and Cressida manage to keep the numbers down to two in their night of sex.

Victoria Hamilton is exceptionally moving and persuasive in the difficult role of Cressida. You feel that it is her precarious situation rather than any inherent fickleness or easy calculation that makes this highly intelligent, witty, ardent girl break her vows. As she plays it, it's impossible to remain detached or cynical during the scene where she vacillates painfully over whether to yield to Diomedes. What makes it so affecting is her refusal to be dishonest to herself over what she is doing. Anguished reluctance and clear-eyed pragmatism jostle for supremacy, even in the space of a short phrase like "Troilus farewell" where she intones the name with grief- stricken passion and drops to a bleak matter of factness for these valedictions.

Joseph Fiennes's Troilus sounds constantly on the verge of moving himself to tears which gets distinctly irritating. The most striking performances are Louis Hilyer's virile Hector and Phillip Voss's flamboyantly wily Ulysses, who clearly promotes the idea of Cressida as a fickle wanton out of pique at her wit. An unjust verdict, delivered here in her presence and causing visible psychological damage.

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