Anthony Mark Barrow
Troilus and Cressida is not the easiest of Shakespeares plays to stage. Telling of an interlude in the history of the Trojan Wars, after Paris has kidnapped Helen but before the death of Achilles, the plays backdrop from start to finish is the Greeks inconclusive siege of Troy.
There is nothing obvious for a director to sink his teeth into, no clear dramatic hook. The play is a study of the descent of two great civilisations into a quagmire of madness fuelled by hatred, egos, glory seeking, treachery and back stabbing. This is the setting within which Troilus and Cressidas young love blossoms and then fades when they are separated, although even here there is no obvious tragedy to appeal to the heart like Romeo and Juliet, given that the two actually survive.
Cheek By Jowl employ a number of tactics in their staging this thematically rich but dramatically unwieldy text. Firstly there’s the minimalist set, consisting entirely of five long strips of linen that lay across the centre of the theatre (with the audience sitting either side), and rising at each end to form entrances and exits. By placing the entire drama within this space, with no scenery changes, the whole play was given a sense of an apocalyptic descent from which there was no hope of escape.
They have also opted to use modern costumes, thus enabling a sense of ancient heroism in battle to be combined with the machine-like qualities of modern warfare. Most notably they have chosen to introduce a considerable comic element to the play, not least through making Thersites a commentator on much of the action a man in drag.
Though individually interesting, these elements did not always tie in neatly with each other. Whether this enabled the true complexities to be brought out in an already multi-faceted piece, or simply muddled further what can already be a baffling play, is a matter of personal taste. In any case the individual elements werent as successful as they could have been. Placing the actors in broadly modern dress, but with no further explanation as to whether the setting was the Second World War or, say, modern day Iraq, proved limiting. Similarly, the comedy hardly worked with so many of Thersites lines, clearly delivered with the intention of getting a laugh, receiving nothing of the sort. In one instance, where Thersites performed a speech as a cabaret act, this actually gave the scene a pleasing understated quality, but on other occasions the humour just fell flat.
Alex Waldmann and Lucy Briggs-Owen delivered strong performances as the lovers. Both are of tender years and, perhaps as a result, their nervousness when they first met and their subsequent youthful excitement at getting together, seemed very real. But they fell down in portraying sufficient emotional intensity at the news they were to be parted, and both need to work on applying stylistic integrity to their lines and movements. I suspect, however, that these things will come in time. Indeed, we may have been looking at two stars in the making.
The best performance of the night, however, was Marianne Oldham whose sensuous portrayal of Helen made the audience appreciate why men fell head over heels in love with her. David Collings also gave a wonderfully eccentric performance as Cressidas uncle, Pandarus.
At its best this production was highly dramatic, reaching its zenith in the final battle where the tightly choreographed fight was presented like a modern day ball game, complete with cheering crowds. Thersites provided the commentary, and the sound of Helens beautiful voice soaring over the bloody field drenched the scene in pathos.
Though sometimes lacking an overall coherence, the strong performances and sheer class that Cheek by Jowl bring to their productions still made for a memorable evening, and left me feeling that, though, in places, things could have been done better, there are few companies that could have done so much with such challenging material.