RSC’s most recent production of Troilus and Cressida has some brilliant moments but remains disappointing overall.
The main challenge of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, in my opinion, is continuity. The end of the play contains a bizarre sequence of events that the director must portray with clarity, as the audience doesn’t usually have prior knowledge of these confusing scenes. Gregory Doran’s production fails to do this. Past productions have depicted Pandarus as a syphilitic drag queen (Ian Judge, 1996), or with a giant dildo prop (Wing-Davey, 1995), emphasising his sexual obsession to make sense his final speech about ‘bequeath[ing]’ venereal ‘diseases’ to the audience. Doran’s play does not make sense of this; we see a weak, tedious old man, lacking an understanding of personal space, rather than a seedy voyeur. Why then, does he suddenly appear on stage to close the play with a rash around his mouth suggesting some sort of venereal disease, talking in such bawdy language? While the odd shade of lipstick Oliver Ford Davies’ Pandarus wears throughout does raise eyebrows, there is nothing to suggest the character’s intensely sexual interest, and thus the play lacks coherence.
Such continuity is also lacking in Andy Apollo’s Achilles due to the presentation of homosexuality. Shakespeare makes the sexual element of Achilles and Pandarus’ relationship evident as he transforms the Greeks into anti-heroes. This pandered to the contemporary audience’s opinions, as Britain in the Renaissance period favoured the Trojan side of the war, and were, of course, homophobic. Doran’s choice to set the play in a post-apocalyptic era, which the RSC seems to be doing for a fair few of its plays recently, takes out the historic homophobic dimension. Since there are no significant explicit homophobic comments in the play, the only perspective we have of homosexuality is our own 21st Century view. Modern society has started to accept and praise LGBTQ+ individuals, but that means that the dislike Shakespeare intended audiences to hold towards Achilles because of his homosexual relationship is lost. Doran does nothing to compensate for this. The ending, again, makes little sense. Throughout the play we see an Achilles presented to us in a neutral light – there is nothing that glorifies him, but equally nothing that condemns him – and then we are suddenly presented with a weak Achilles, who contradicts our every expectation. His killing of Hector, which in the play-text takes on homosexual implications, falls flat. An uninformed audience member with a basic knowledge of Homer’s version of the Trojan war would likely question why the killing had changed. In Doran’s play, we see a dramatic shift in Achilles’ character because of Doran’s inability to handle the conflicting ideas about homosexuality.
That said, the performances of Adjoa Andoh (Ulysses), Gavin Fowler (Troilus), and Amber James (Cressida) must be praised. Doran should have edited the play more drastically, cutting out the scenes that fell flat because of jokes that belong solely in Shakespeare’s age, but the dynamic acting of Andoh and the chemistry of the lovers kept the performance alive. Evelyn Glennie’s beautiful, though at times intrusive, music also breathes life into the play. Charlotte Arrowsmith as Cassandra was also striking. The first deaf actor employed to perform with the RSC, she performed incredibly and added an extra dimension to the character. Cassandra, whose prophecies of destruction are dismissed because she is female, keeps miming after her maid has stopped interpreting for her; her warnings mean nothing to them.