The contrast could not be starker. While commercial success and awards continue to elude the RSC, Bristol-based Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory goes from strength to strength. Hot on the heels of the announcement that the company is holding talks with the Barbican about performing the Bard at the London venue recently vacated by the RSC, comes the launch of this, the critically-acclaimed Bristol company's fourth season.
Troilus and Cressida, is one of the least often performed plays by Stratford's finest but its theme is distressingly pertinent; namely, war and its corrupting effects, however just the cause. The play opens in the seventh year of the Greek siege of Troy and the conflict is at a stalemate. Meanwhile, Troilus, son of the Trojan king, has fallen in love with Cressida, daughter of the Trojan seer Calchas, who has fled to the Greeks led by Agamemnon.
Excellent though the verse-speaking is and intimate the venue, I must admit I struggled during the first half of this (very) long and unfamiliar play. "Jaw jaw", as Churchill had it, may be better than "war war" but it can make for dull theatre. The language in Troilus is often dense, knotty; bent on exploring themes like opinion, truth and true worth.
Things pick up, however, with the challenge to single combat by the mighty Trojan hero Hector - cue considerable and comic posturing by Ulysses Alisdair Simpson and Ajax Tom Sherman, the latter looking like a member of a dodgy 70's prog-rock combo. But it is the Greeks subsequent reception of Cressida into their camp which brings home that underneath all the talk of honour lie uglier, more elemental aspects of human behaviour.
Full marks to director Andrew Hilton for his thoughtful transfer of the conflict to Edwardian times, one which brings home the topicality of the play's themes. Full marks too to an excellent cast among whom Ian Barrit (Pandarus), John MacKay (Ulysses) Alisdair Simpson (Achille) and Lisa Kay (Cressida) shine particularly brightly.
- by Peter Wood