Troilus And Cressida, Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Rhoda Koenig
Monday 17 February 2003 01:00

Light floods this Troilus and Cressida, a production that, as one expects from the Tobacco Factory, sets out the play in a lucid manner and is acted by a company whose verse speaking – unlike that of some far wealthier ones – ranges from good to splendid. Announcing the scene of war and love corrupting each other are four columns. Weeds sprout around them, and the erotic frescos with which they are decorated are cracked and peeling.

Andrew Hilton has transferred this story of the Trojan War to the time of another overlong and ill-conducted conflict of dubious origin: the First World War. Apart from Achilles sulking in a kaftan, the Greeks and Trojans dress as cavalry officers. Cressida (Lisa Kay) poses prettily, in the height of flirtatious fashion, on a chaise-longue. Her uncle Pandarus (Ian Barritt marvellously droll and just camp enough) is a character from a slightly later time – a Noel Coward figure of smiling detachment, who ends the play with a mocking kiss of his hand to the audience. The rippling charm of their dialogue is matched by the sweet reason of Andrew Mackay's Ulysses, who, in the Greek conclave, unfolds his plans like a gentle public schoolmaster and by John Nicholas's Agamemnon, who could be that school's crusty-but-fair head.

Achilles, the lanky, haughty Alisdair Simpson, is the richest boy, too grand to befriend anyone but his pet Patroclus (Mark Hesketh), and Ajax (Tom Sherman) the school dimwit. Sherman is very good at conveying Ajax's sickness – he gets a big laugh when, told to cut Achilles, he doesn't simply turn his head away but ignores him with wild gesture and elaborate pantomime. As the mighty Greek commander, though, with his frequently petulant face framed in ringlets, he is about as fearsome as the Marquis of Bath – and herein lies the weakness of Hilton's production: while the comic aspects of this terribly difficult and divided play are brilliantly served, the tragic and sordid ones have little impact.

Not only Ajax, but Ulysses, Achilles, and Joseph Mawle's Troilus seem too untried, too boyish for seasoned warriors. The sword fights don't carry any more charge or threat than matches in fencing class, and the scene in which the Greeks force their kisses on the captive Cressida seems more awkward than ugly.

Too much of the play's squalor and corruption are left to Jamie Ballard's Thersites, who, scabby, bent, and club-footed, scuttles around making unpleasant truths nastier still. Forceful as he is however, he doesn't seem altogether serious – at time he recalls those characters Michael Palin used to play on Monty Python when he would hunch over and slick his hair back. While amply worth seeing, this is a Troilus and Cressida that will move you to admiration of the troupe's intelligence and technique, but not to sorrow or pity.

To 15 March (0117 902 0344)

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