Culture editor Olivia Boyce reviews a brilliant post-apocalyptic production of Troilus and Cressida, the tale of love and betrayal in the Trojan War, at the RSC
Motorbikes rev threateningly, scrap metal clangs gently as it hangs above, and shipping containers approach from the depths of the RST’s stage. From the very moment the play begins, heralded by tremendous percussion, it is clear that this is going to be one extraordinary production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.
And extraordinary it is, under the careful directorial hand of Gregory Doran. The tale, that of the titular two lovers as they navigate their way in a world in the midst of the Trojan War, has been given a post-apocalyptic edge through a truly astounding design by Niki Turner. The RST stage is fully transformed, with descending walkways, moving shipping containers and a large metal sphere which descends to convey characters above and below. It is a brilliant reimagining of the devastating world of the Trojan War, one that is given greater life by truly astounding costuming by the RSC costuming department and Matt Daw’s spectacular lighting, and it is almost as if this play was written to be staged as it is in this production.
Though not perhaps one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays, Troilus and Cressida is a compelling tale of a young love, infidelity, war and loss, told through the presence of some of history’s most famous soldiers. We meet Achilles, Ulysses, Aeneas and Agamemnon, titans of the conflict that the play places its audiences right into the middle of, and we also meet Helen and Paris, the famed lovers of Troy. Each is played brilliantly by the overwhelmingly excellent cast, capturing their might in the original legends, and yet it is the pairing of Troilus and Cressida that truly proves to be the driving force.
Gavin Fowler and Amber James capture the complex love and betrayals of Troilus and Cressida perfectly. Fowler shows Troilus’ awkwardness as he pines after Cressida, his elation at their shared admission of love, and the devastating effect of her suggested inconstancy, becoming a ruthless warrior at the play’s close. Amber James matches this journey with her own impressive performance, showing Cressida’s feisty wit, her emotional dilemmas and her despair at the turn of events.
Suzanne Bertish commands as Agamemnon, leading the Greek faction including Achilles, played with great nuance by Andy Apollo. His relationship with James Cooney’s Patroclus is touching, and leads to one of the deeply moving moments of grief that punctuate the latter half of the play. Particularly excellent amongst the otherwise brilliant cast is Adjoa Andoh as Ulysses. No stranger to the RSC stage, Adjoa steals every scene she is in, capturing the cunning and charismatic general as she deftly manipulates almost everyone around her. Sheila Reid and Oliver Ford Davies are also delightful as Thersites and Pandarus, perhaps the more comic characters of the play, though both also have moments of profound emotion.
Intrinsic to this production is sound, with percussionists playing a range of instruments throughout, including on stage. They herald many of the more dramatic moments of the play, but provide a dynamic and compelling backdrop throughout, with Evelyn Glennie’s astounding compositions the real driving force behind this production.
Troilus and Cressida at the RSC is a truly astounding piece of theatre, and up there with the best productions on the RST stage. For a tale of love, vengeance and war, there is little better.
Troilus and Cressida plays in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 17 November, with a live broadcast on 14 November. More info: rsc.org.uk