Troilus & Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s infrequently performed plays, most likely due to the ambiguous characterisation and plot. Set in the final years of the Trojan War, the play is largely a satire of the great legends from the Odyssey including Ulysses, Agamemnon, and Hector. Coincidentally, there’s the added interest of the love story between Cressida, Calchas’s daughter, and Troilus, son of Priam and Prince of Troy. Secret House’s most recent revival of the play argues for its contemporary relevance with questions of identity, love, and war.
This script isn’t a Shakespeare I’m familiar with, though I’ve studied the myths and the origin texts before. It’s the kind of play where that background reading is necessary to following the relationships between the Trojans and Greeks and generally between each individual legend. Instead of forming a capsule story, Troilus & Cressida begins in the middle of negotiations about Helenus and ends with the unsatisfactory death of Hector all within the larger context of the Trojan War. There’s a history that stretches before and another that stretches after the action of this particular play which accounts for a lot of the uncertainty and messiness in plot.
Director Sean O’Riordan’s production could be summarised as both authentic and confused. Authentic in the sense that the script maintains its integrity and appears much in the fashion intended some 400 years ago: the characters act mostly as satirisation of themselves and the title romance plot is fluffy filler for a larger critique of war and mythologising. The most confusing aspect of the production is that O’Riordan seems aware of the script’s faults but doesn’t appear to attempt to rectify or clarify those ambiguities and, in some instances, exacerbates them.
If the introduction of thrusting the audience into the middle of an extensive history isn’t disconcerting enough, the literal introduction of the audience to the performance space as into the cast in costume but not in character unnecessarily disrupts the tone of the performance (before it has even begun) and encourages the audience to feel excluded from the theatre clique if they’re not personally acquainted with the cast. If you must have actors on stage during audience entrance, to increase feelings of festivity or community, then surely put them in character and invite your audience into the atmosphere of your play, not your production company.
The romance between Troilus (Matthew Bartlett) and Cressida (Jane Angharad) is gentle and sweet. Bartlett plays a naive and timid Prince with a bubbling exuberance that quickly sours when he trades Cressida with the Trojans. Angharad similarly attempts a genuine and emotional portrayal of her character but is given very little to work with, customary of Shakespeare’s women characters. Disappointingly, the only other regularly vocal female character, Cassandra (Emilia Stubbs-Grigoriou), is characterised as hysterical, raving, and unreliable to include unproductive sexism and dismissiveness in an already sexist story. It’s a clear opportunity missed by O’Riordan to address a fault of the script and move the production into the 21st century.
Other stand-out performances include Hector (Alec Ebert) and Achilles (Margarita Gershkovich) who were easy to watch on stage and spoke the Shakespearean dialogue naturally. Thersites (Danen Young), as the comic relief character, was bold and clown-like in a true adherence to his role in the play, but his enormous movements and enthusiasm put him in a completely different production from his more reserved cast members. While I think his performance was one of the best, it was inconsistent with the rest of the production.
Returning to my earlier criticism of the confusion of this staging, the design was appropriately elaborate but ultimately failed to achieve a coherent atmosphere or identifiable location in space and time. Of course, like many Shakespeare’s, the location of the action is specified in and around Troy, but the beauty of texts like his are their flexibility and the freedom they allow a director in dragging the story into the present day, or any other day for that matter. Instead, designer Maya Keys chose a generic, nondescript desert space to set this revival. Each opposing side maintains a consistent colour palette of beige for the Trojans and black for the Greeks but Troilus and his council look like they’ve stepped out of North Africa, through Star Wars, and into humble hessian, tunics, and sweeping robes, whereas the Greeks wouldn’t be out of place on the set of Mad Max: Fury Road; a dystopian cyber-goth aesthetic. Cressida, on the other hand, looks the most traditionally Grecian in a flowing red velvet dress and gold headpiece. To think, Troilus is the Prince of Troy and Cressida the daughter of a priest but she wears gold. The sound design is equally inconsistent with the use of traditional war horns in some scenes and loud techno music in transitions or silent scenes.
The script is flexible but that doesn’t mean it will not suffer under the weight of incorporating every idea available into a single staging. In the same vein, this script isn’t the strongest in its characterisation, plot, or moral conclusions, and a failure to establish a clear, consistent intention through location, time period, or overall design allows the power of the script’s criticisms to get lost in confusion. What is particularly disappointing is the failure to acknowledge this script’s relevance in its critique and satirisation of toxic masculinity with the romanticisation of war and violence, mythologizing of male power, and men’s weakness to challenges to their honour. After the #metoo movement and the media attention being paid to powerful men across every industry who take advantage of their power to do harm; when the President of the United States sends threats of wars and bombings to other countries via Twitter; and when domestic violence and toxic masculinity seems to be constantly on the nightly news, seeing a production that could have addressed a history leading up to this moment in time but that fails to accept the opportunity is a disappointment and demonstrates a disinterest in keeping theatre making relevant and revolutionary.
Troilus & Cressida is showing at the Depot Theatre from May 11 – May 19.