Monday, July 20, 2009

Theatre: Troilus and Cressida

Shakespeare's Globe, 18/7/2009

Call me a bit middlebrow, but I really do enjoy plays at Shakespeare's Globe, definitely including their "original practices" productions. The atmosphere is unique, with a combination of intimacy and theatricality; I don't know if the designers and directors have really recreated the authentic Elizabethan format, but they certainly come up with something. But we'd not been for a while, and we left booking this until a few days before, so we had to take "restricted view" seats.

And so, after a quick early dinner at The Real Greek, just down the road (the first time we'd tried this small London-based chain - not at all bad, and eminently suited to the need of a quick bite before the play), we found ourselves up on the highest level, almost behind the stage, and looking down on the heads of the cast and squinting sideways at the musicians. Actually, though, this worked pretty well; the wraparound audience is sort of much of the point of the exercise. I wouldn't put anyone off from taking these tickets.

Now, confession time; I don't think that I've ever seen a production of Troilus and Cressida before, though I think that I read it back at school. But then, one doesn't get very many chances, and looking up the history of the play, well, one wouldn't have had any for most of the period since it was written. You can tell that this is considered minor Shakespeare; it only has a handful of resonantly oft-quoted lines.

"Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, Wherein he puts alms for oblivion ... Wars and lechery ... Generation of vipers ...."

Gosh, Shakespeare was in a sour mood when he wrote this one, wasn't he? Not King Lear life-is-pain, the-gods-don't-care tragic, just life-sucks-because-people-are-idiots deep-seated annoyance. I rather wonder if he'd be out drinking with a few veterans of the Dutch wars for a few nights. I do like the idea that Achilles is somewhat based on the recently-fallen Earl of Essex, who was certainly compared to the "classical" Achilles when he was at his height of accomplishment. The play's Achilles is enough of an egomaniac sociopath glory-hound to fit my impression of Essex. (I'm not sure why this version had the play's only Welsh accent, though.)

Or perhaps, not knowing the play so well, I'm being influenced too much by a modern director's interpretation. The play's contempt for the business of war-fighting has evidently made it very much a piece for the post-1914 world, and it's doubtless impossible to avoid modernising much of it. The depiction of Cressida as a desperate victim of a male-dominated, militarised world, scrabbling to survive while being treated as property, while plausible and moving, may not have been entirely original practices. But then, this production interpreted that term fairly broadly; the fairly authentic-looking Hellenic arms and armour wouldn't have been very likely in the Elizabethan era, I think. Still, the designer and armorer had some neat (if arbitrary) ideas, giving the Trojans curved kopis-style swords and bucklers, while the Greeks had straight gladius-style blades and pelta-type crescent shields. I think that the idea was to give the audience back their own vague ideas about the setting, just as would have been the norm in Shakespeare's time; along with the warriors in skirts and Hellenic helmets, there were the women in floaty white nighties, sometimes with arbitrary cutaway panels. It mostly worked, although Helen's high heels were a bit distracting. The fight scenes were a touch stylised, sometimes going into slow motion, but given the numbers involved and nature of the stage, that was probably a necessity.

Anyway... I think that I can also see why this play was tagged as a history (rather than a tragedy or a comedy), perhaps even by Shakespeare himself. Not that it fits with the rest of his history cycle, of course, but the sense that it's re-telling an existing story to make a complicated point about the subject, and letting the messy complexities of the story just lie there rather than being resolved, because that's just how they are, not wrapped up in a neat plot. (Although not being an English history, and not featuring anyone with any sort of blood relationship to the Tudors, perhaps lets Shakespeare be more cynical than the other histories normally manage.) Actually, it's a rather untidy plot; the nominal protagonists more or less disappear by the end, as the attention shifts to the death of Ajax and the war lurches on, rolling over individuals. All this open-endedness and cynicism maybe sit oddly with the somewhat carnivalesque atmosphere of a Globe production, too; the (historically authentic) closing jig ends up feeling anomalous (although I don't know how such things work when the Globe does Lear either). But one has to wonder how Shakespeare's own audience took this thing, too (this being, one gathers, even less known than for some of his other works), and I can't think of a more enjoyable way to be confronted with such questions.


Tyler said...

Have you ever read Tim Powers' Earthquake Weather? He recasts Troilus and Cressida as the fragmentary remains of a manual on ghost hunting and exorcism.

Phil Masters said...

That's a Powers I've missed until now. Sounds interesting, although I'm not sure how you map Troilus and Cressida onto ghost-hunting. I'll have to track it down some time - thanks.