“Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery: nothing else holds fashion”.
It’s often said that “all’s fair in love and war”. But is it? Is war, for example, ever truly justifiable? Do the ends ever justify the means?
In his ‘Don Quixote’, writer Miguel de Cervantes declared that “love and war are all one”. In fact, he continued, “It is lawful to use sleights and stratagems to . . . attain the wished end.”
In William Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’, a love story between these two eponymous characters is placed at the centre of a war, as much part of that plot, as it is its own. The play places its characters during a stalemate in the Trojan war after seven bitter years of conflict, entered into after Paris abducted Helen, wife of the Greek Menelaus. In the play, not only do we get some sense of comparison between love and war, we also realise just how much one influences the other, and is affected by the other. The love story here is permeated by the tragic consequences of war, which itself results in tragic consequences for the love between Troilus and Cressida.
Considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, and therefore rarely performed, perhaps even considered unpopular, the play’s close is unresolved, ending with the death of one of its major characters, and the broken love between Troilus and Cressida. Furthermore, even though the war is, in its current state, stagnant, there appears to be no end in sight, with no guarantee of peace. Is this justifiable? Is it necessary?
RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran directs the company’s latest production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’. Doran has collaborated with virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who provides the soundscape for the production, the play’s dialogue running in conjunction with Glennie’s sounds, mimicking the rhythm of war.
Her first score for the theatre, Glennie’s musical accompaniment is an integral part of this production, and appears almost to influence action, as much as it itself is influenced. Reflecting the beating heart of war, the often thunderous music acts as a war cry, echoing the disruptive, jarring, chaotic world of war. However, when reflecting the beating hearts of our young lovers, the music becomes gentler, softer, and more harmonious.
The love between Troilus and Cressida, placed at the centre of a war, gives audiences a closer, more intimate look at how war divides – just as nations are divided, so two are lovers. In addition to the large-scale, all-encompassing effects of war, on a smaller scale, it proves just as divisive, affecting the individual, the couple, and the family, just as much as the collective.
At the beginning of the production, Helen, now of Troy, is lowered in a huge metallic spherical structure, and from this, she herself delivers the prologue, whilst Paris, her lover, sleeps at her feet. Several times in the production she is lowered thus, as though her hanging above the action serves as a reminder as to the obvious, perhaps superficial, cause of war – she herself. After she has delivered the prologue, all the characters swarm the stage – one on a motorbike, another on stilts. The first impression an audience gets of these characters is one relating to the typical, albeit modernised, vision of a Homeric hero – standing tall, mighty, figures of strength, the stuff of fable; of myth; of legend.
As the production progresses, however, this first image is slowly worn away, this heroism seems to crumble, and we see these characters for what they are – human. Infinitely more complex than the stereotypical ‘hero’.
In a creative sense, this rather thrilling opening immediately gives audiences a sense of the epic scope of this production – set, lighting, sound, costume, and performance combine to create an impressive, cinematic visual, as though the audience have been plunged into a similarly-themed blockbuster.
In an RSC first, the production features 50/50 casting, with half of traditionally male roles played here by female actors, an important and significant step in the fight for gender balance. This production, and the emotionally-charged performances from its cast, ensure that the complexities of character here is maintained throughout – all these characters are very human, and all are flawed. They have their virtues, their heroic tendencies, but they also have vices, an important fact to remember given that the play is concerned with the gradual destruction of morality. The vices of these changeable, fickle characters become more and more dominant as the production progresses. Each member of the cast displays the full range, the extremities, of human emotion, in their honest portrayal of a plethora of values that are intrinsically human.
Gavin Fowler and Amber James are masterful as the eponymous lovers. Fowler’s Troilus has a delightfully charming awkwardness about him, hugely endearing as he clumsily drops his helmet, and then trips up a set of steps, just as Pandarus is showing him off to Cressida, despite his desire to appear cool and collected, puffing his chest out and walking rather ludicrously past her. Even Troilus here is familiar, is aware, of what is expected of such heroic figures, and appears to try his best to match this description. However, later in the production, particularly after the announcement that Cressida is to be taken to the Greek camp he, rather heroically, tries to see off the advances of Diomed. After later witnessing Cressida’s flirting with Diomed, however, and her giving him a token, Fowler’s Troilus changes once again, sinking to the ground in despair, fallen under the weight of his sadness. Importantly, the text plays around with the idea of what you see being different to what you believe. Perhaps Cressida didn’t turn out to be the person Troilus thought, indeed hoped, she would be. Such is the case with many of these characters.
James’ Cressida is excellent – a character whose forward-thinking seems to reflect that of Shakespeare himself in having written her thus. For instance, in love with Troilus, and having loved him for some time, she reveals, the character certainly does not hold back in conveying her true feelings. Although the two vow to be faithful to one another Cressida it seems, is quick to betray him. When at the Greek camp, she flirts with Diomed, her Greek guard, and even gives him a token – the sleeve of Troilus. However, she appears to be instantly struck with guilt, and attempts to snatch the token back, but Diomed takes it from her, and takes his leave. Cressida scream the name of Troilus’, remorseful, instantly full of regret. Even here, it is not easy to simply label the character as bad – rather, was it a brief slip into infidelity, from which she can recover?
Charlotte Arrowsmith gives a particularly powerful, sometimes unsettling, performance as Cassandra, prophetess and sister to Troilus. Communicating via sign language, expressive moment and emphatic gesture, she strives to warn her family of impending doom, urging them first to return Helen to the Greeks, and then warning them of the imminent fall of Troy. Unfortunately for her family, her screams are not heard. Another RSC first, though the actress is deaf, her character proves to be one of the production’s most astute.
Andy Apollo’s Achilles is very finely portrayed, and there are moments of real tenderness between his character, and James Cooney’s Patroclus, lover to Achilles. Theo Ogundipe’s powerful Ajax is more akin to what we would think of when discussing the Homeric hero – tall, strong, athletic, cutting a striking figure. The characters seems to possess predominantly more brawn than brain, however, and is a great source of comedy as a result. Alongside Apollo’s Achilles, the two strut around the stage, clad in leather, topless – physically, the epitome of the hero. Whether they prove to be in deed, however, rather than simply in appearance, is the question.
Standout performances also come from Adjoa Andoh as the deliciously manipulative Ulysses, Amanda Harris as a commanding Aeneas, Suzanne Bertish as the authoritative Agamemnon, Oliver Ford Davies as Pandarus, uncle to Cressida and go-between for herself and Troilus, and Sheila Reid as the ‘rascal’ Thersites – whose natural delivery of Shakespeare’s witty dialogue provided much comedy within the production.
When exploring the type of play this is, and subsequently any production of it, one does wonder whether it is a history? A comedy? A tragedy? In truth, it bears elements of all three. After the final bows, actress Adjoa Andoh stepped forward to highlight the importance of charity ‘Acting for Others’. Before she did so, however, she joked that she hoped the audience had enjoyed their “light comedy”. At this, there was a ripple of laughter from the crowds, as all understood the irony, and collectively seemed to agree that the play is not a ‘light comedy’. But what is it? Suffice it to say, this play, and this production of this play, is a bit of everything. More complex than it might first appear, it bears a deep texture and, though it contains many comedic elements, much satire and wit, it is also tragic, and ends in tragedy for our characters – lovers and warriors alike.
The production is dedicated to the late John Barton, co-founder and former director of the RSC. This play is said to be Barton’s favourite, and he directed it a total of three times during his directorial years at the RSC. In the production’s accompanying programme, Gregory Doran shares with us some of Barton’s notes on the production – his advice to the players. Here, Barton urges players to “beware of making any summing up generalisation about what the play is about. The play resists such formation. That is its point, what it’s about – life doesn’t allow that”. Indeed, it is as hard to label this play as it is to label its characters. Both are complex, and such complexities should be, not only maintained, but celebrated. This production does just that – its vision, its characters, are multifaceted.
This production clings to the complexities of the text, portraying its many extremes. According to Barton, “[Shakespeare] paints a picture of life in which all these extremes exist. Shakespeare doesn’t impose an overall tone, but presents a deliberately jarring mixture… This is reflected in the texture of text; plot and action; and characterisation”. So too is it realised, reflected, and celebrated, in this production.
In addition to the comedy present in the production, it does bear some very touching moments, thereby providing us with this other extreme. For example, the first exchange between Troilus and Cressida, in which they both profess their love for one another, is beautifully powerful, and very honest, and we see these two characters blossom, growing in confidence – Cressida taking charge and boldly declaring her love, Troilus no longer awkward, clumsy, around her. Later, when it is decreed that Cressida is to be sent to the Greek camp, exchanged for a Trojan prisoner, Troilus reaction to this news is particularly stirring, as later is that of Pandarus, and then of Cressida. Later still, after Patroclus has been killed, Achilles carries him out of his tent and gently lays him down, kissing his forehead. Towards the end of the play, after Cassandra has urged her brother not to fight in the battle, foreseeing his doom, she hugs him, briefly, but this fleeting embrace, though a small act, is significant, the last time she will see her brother.
Despite being a play written in Elizabethan times, and set in ancient times, the RSC’s production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ feels inherently modern. Reverting once more to the words of Barton, he wrote that “Troilus and Cressida is the most modern in tone of Shakespeare’s plays. Modern, in that Shakespeare invites the audience to look at things once, critically, sympathetically, ambiguously, and without making final judgements”. As referenced earlier, Barton urges us to refrain from making generalisations when it comes to this play, and such, it becomes harder for us to make judgement, particularly regarding character. In fact, one might argue that this production does not allow for one to make judgements, or at least it certainly doesn’t make it easy for us to do so. As soon as we think we know a character, they change, and do something that perhaps we weren’t expecting. Just as quickly they revert back to a first extreme.
This high-powered, dynamic production, which explores the very nature of love and war as the two powerfully intertwine, heightens our appreciation for this oft-performed play, as the RSC so skilfully present us with these characters that are subject to change, that are not two-dimensional, that act and react just as we would today. Even the best among these characters fall prey to such un-heroic qualities as pride, vanity, jealousy, vengefulness and lechery. These characters might not be your stereotypical ‘hero’. Nor can they easily be labelled as anti-heroes. This production ensures they are viewed for what they are – human.