Troilus and Cressida, RSC on National Tour
Note: This review dates from the production's original London run at the Barbican Pit.
This is a Troilus and Cressida for modern times. The scene is set by Thersites as a paparazzo ready to take candid snapshots of everything and everyone. And there's a lot of material for his lens.
The Greeks are presented as a bunch of Latin degenerates who greet Jayne Ashbourne's Cressida with an elaborate series of tangos, a display of eroticism that she seems delighted to participate in. And Achilles homosexual liaison with Patroclus is more than just alluded to, it's completely brazen, even to the point of having an actress (Elaine Pyke) play him, as well as his Trojan lover Polixena. In contrast, the Trojans are deeply religious Irish freedom fighters. The scenes in Priam's palace would not look out of place in a Synge play. And in this world, Helen is more than just a causus belli but a real object of worship.
One qualm about this production is its willingness for abbreviation. Not only have scenes been trimmed, whole characters have been dropped. Nestor has disappeared altogether and, with most of his speeches going to Ulysses, this has given the “Ithacan dog-fox” a bigger role than usual.
The play's traditional emphases are also redistributed. For one, here, there is certainly not the all-out war with its attendant cruelties. Ajax and Hector's unarmed combat is a wrestling match and, after Achilles has slain Hector, he does not drag his body behind his chariot but leaves it for the Trojans to mourn. In a very modern manner, physical battle plays second string to its political incarnation. Colin Hurley's Ulysses is no warrior but a wheeler-dealer in a double-breasted suit. Looking somewhat like Robin Cook, he tries to entice Achilles with paparazzi shots of him and Polixena and eventually succeeds in drawing him when Patroclus is killed, not by Hector, but by Diomedes.
The romance between Troilus and Cressida is also overshadowed by the political manoevering. Which is a pity. William Houston makes a fine Troilus, a shock-headed lout, more at home in battle than wooing Cressida, but very strong when Cressida is taken away from him. And Ashbourne's Cressida is recognisably a teenage girl, hiding her passions under her Catholic veneer.
Among the rest of the impressive cast are Darrell D'Silva's Achilles, played as a barrel-chested bully, Paul Hamilton's neanderthal Ajax and Alistair Petrie's honest Hector. But perhaps, at a time when what politicians get up in their private lives has become a major issue, special mention should go to Lloyd Hutchison's excellent Thersites whose snapshots and cynical observations frame the play.