Cheek by Jowl’s new English-language production, Troilus and Cressida, seems to be one of those that is already polarising people. In just the day and a half since I saw it I’ve already heard from people who loved it and others who loathed it, and the reviews ranged from Michael Billington’s 4-star praise in the Guardian to John Peter’s damning 1-star review in the Sunday Times. Fortunately, it’s only my own opinion I have to worry about, so I’ll let the debate rage at a later date.
This was unmistakable, classic Cheek by Jowl from the off. The traverse seating created a long, thin playing area which director Declan Donnellan made full use of. Long strips of white cloth ran the length of the stage and, at the ends, rose steeply to the ceiling (designer Nick Ormerod clearly developing the visual themes introduced in Twelfth Night). The only set consisted of a series of 16 small crates/blocks that were continually moved about to form chairs, platforms and so on. The dark aesthetic of the set and costumes, almost entirely black and white save for the actors’ skins, allowed Judith Greenwood’s spectacular lighting design to play a key role in creating environments with beautiful moments such as the throwing up of three enormous shadows onto the wall as Troilus reported Hector’s death.
The play opened with the glamorous Helen, played with expert poise by the elegantly-dressed Marianne Oldham, strolling casually up and down the stage before delivering the prologue to the audience. Helen was given unusual prominence in this production, Donnellan using her to sexualise the Trojan war, imagining it as a series of conflicts between love and lust. This was emphasised powerfully at the start of the second act. Helen was added to the scene in which Paris and Diomedes discuss Helen’s merits, the two lovers naked under sheets and lying centrally. Walking off in opposite directions, and casting off their sheets as they left the stage, they gave way to Troilus and Cressida who entered chasing each other playfully before taking the place vacated by Helen and Paris. The two revelled in their new-found sexuality, both flashing Pandarus in mockery as the old man leered over his discovery of them. Not long after the couple’s separation, their place in bed was yet again usurped, this time by Achilles and Patroclus. The triply-repeated image, recurring in participants from all sides of the war, placed sex visually at the centre of all the character’s actions.
Sex, or the lack thereof, was key elsewhere. Oliver Coleman’s Menelaus (significantly doubled with Paris, the man who cuckolded him) was sexually frustrated, perhaps impotent, and was pointedly made the butt of everyone’s jokes. He retaliated in a moment of threatened violence at Cressida’s refusal to kiss him, an awkward moment in the Greek’s joviality which was skated over quickly. Ulysses, a nervy Ryan Kiggell, was surprisingly bookish and awkward and, again, it was sex where he seemed to lack experience, allowing Cressida to gull him into crawling on his knees begging like a dog for a kiss while the rest laughed at him.
Awkwardness and unpleasantness marred several of the characters. Perhaps most interesting was Alex Waldmann’s Troilus, a short and young man awed by his big brother Hector, in a strong performance by David Caves. As Pandarus and Cressida watched the Trojans parade, Hector paused centrally to go through maneuveres with his sword, swinging it expertly. Troilus followed close behind and tried to copy him, but far more clumsily, and it was left to Hector to correct his little brother. Troilus’ immature enthusiasm for love and war were his emotional downfall, leaving him vulnerable to hurt. His dismissal of Cressida on the news of the prisoner exchange was shockingly abrupt, he accepting the decision as just a part of what the larger game of war demanded. Later, as Hector armed for war, he leapt into his brother’s arms in a final gesture of childish dependence.
Lucy Briggs-Owen was similarly interesting as Cressida, dressed distinctly unglamorously in trousers and a vest-top throughout. She was an everyday Cressida, a normal girl dealing with emotions she didn’t understand. Her initial meeting with Troilus was wonderful, she unhappy about the whole thing and irritated by her uncle continually poking her in the back, to the point of trying to storm out, but eventually won over by Troilus’ simple enthusiasm. By the time of the parallel scene with Diomedes, as the hidden onlookers crouched in far corners of the stage, she had become far more sexually aware (as was apparent during her introduction to the Greeks as she slowly started trying out her power over them, culminating in her humiliation of Ulysses) and her frantic attitude with Diomedes belied her confusion – sexually aroused by the thug who treated her so brutally (often hitting her), loyal to an innocent memory of a former love and seductive as she tried to get what she wanted – only, she didn’t know what that was.
The Trojans, dressed in white vests and trousers and armed in white knee- and shoulder-pads, seemed more innocent in general than the shaven-headed and black-clad Trojans. Diomedes was little more than a football thug, Ajax a volatile Scot and the well-spoken Achilles, played by Paul Brennen, a quietly dangerous man. The meeting of the two sides following Ajax and Hector’s duel (won easily by Hector, and stopped with no reference to their family relation, an odd omission) was revealing about both sides. The Trojans came off best, Hector vaunting slightly but generally noble while the Greeks bickered and jostled among themselves.
They were entertained by Richard Cant’s Thersites, a transvestite modelled closely on Lily Savage, even down to the Scouse accent (which wasn’t a great accent, but then it’s my native one so I’m bound to be picky). Thersites was the Greek’s cleaner, giving him/her ample opportunity to banter with Patroclus, who was here a young, pretty and headstrong boy who spent most of his time doing tai-chi when not lying with Achilles. Cant’s Thersites was a bawdy entertainer who got some cheap laughs with antics such as spraying disinfectant in Patroclus’ face, but excelled in an invented cabaret scene where s/he entertained the Greek and Trojan troops, mocking the Greeks in turn through a microphone, sitting on laps, teasing Hector and, for a grand finale, changing from a black number into an exact copy of Helen’s dress in order to taunt Menelaus. The scene, marking the depravity on both sides (Hector joined in with gusto), went further to highlight the collapse of standards through sexual transgression.
The production dragged a little at the start, but the second act was powerful and exciting. Hector’s grossly unfair death, at the hands of several masked Myrmidons who surrounded him and bore him down between their shields, was a particular highlight. This was a play without redemption, without much even in the way of hope, and Pandarus ultimately summed up the tone in his bitter and sincere bequeathing to us of his diseases while the rest of the company stared at us. A bleak and powerful experience.