Troilus and Cressida

Market Drayton Festival Centre, 14 Nov 2018

Leaders breaking their promises, back-stabbing each other, posturing vainly as they become ever-more deeply mired in the stalemate of a long-lasting conflict with no end in sight – and no, I’m not talking about Brexit.

This was Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, streamed live from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and though plotlines and character motivations were complex and tangled, there was never a dull moment. The technology at the Festival Centre delivered a visually stunning spectacle with dramatic fight scenes and a thrilling soundscape composed by percussionist Evelyn Glennie. You felt you were right there in the midst of the Trojan War.

Helen (Daisy Badger)                                                                            all photos Helen Maybanks

Helen of Troy, whose abduction and affair started it all, delivered the prologue from a spherical structure that descended as if from the heavens, part cage part cocoon.

The ambiguities multiplied as leather-clad warriors on motorbikes roared onto the stage from behind metal shipping containers which served the besieging Greeks as tents. Ajax was raring to fight. Achilles was sulking with his boyfriend and refusing to do so. Ulysses and Nestor hatched devious plans. Agamemnon, biker’s goggles perched in her wild hair, weighed her advisers’ words: “Disorder brings chaos, chaos brings ruin.” In the Trojan camp, King Priam’s eldest son Hector suggested a pragmatic solution: heroic single combat between champions.

Ulysses (Adjoa Andoh) and Agamemnon (Suzanne Bertish)

Meanwhile, amidst all these mighty machinations, we had a love story. Hector’s younger brother Troilus had fallen head over heels for fellow Trojan Cressida. With the connivance of her comically doddery uncle Pandarus, they spent the night together and declared everlasting love. But these star-crossed lovers were no Romeo and Juliet.

Troilus (Gavin Fowler) and Cressida (Amber James) with Pandarus (Oliver Ford Davies)

Amber James’ Cressida was a smart young woman whose sassy flirting had a distinctly modern feel to it. Gavin Fowler’s Troilus was clearly no match for her, however much he won our sympathy. She bridled at his repeated insistence that she swear faithfulness.

The very next day she was dispatched to the Greek camp in exchange for a prized Trojan fighter. Shocked at being bartered thus, and initially abused by her new masters, Cressida swiftly adapted to her circumstances and was soon in the arms of her Greek ‘guardian’ Diomed. Troilus did not take it well.

Initially unpopular because of themes which cynically questioned traditional values, the play was rarely performed until the twentieth century. It now has enthusiastic fans. With a 50-50 gender-balanced cast, putting his classical characters in a futuristic setting, and giving them  a dynamic if sometimes harsh soundtrack, director Gregory Doran built on that sense of modernity.

Shakespeare’s evocative language proved little barrier to this. Agamemnon’s stark summary painted a picture we could readily identify with: “What’s passed and yet to come is strewn with husks.” So too her vision of the future as “a formless ruin of oblivion.”