• Ian

Troilus and Cressida - Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. 12.10.18 - 17.11.18

Back in 2008, a Guardian article discussed the casting of David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in the RSC’s upcoming production of Hamlet. Noting that both actors are best known for their roles in massive sci-fi TV shows Doctor Who and Star Trek, the article discussed how science fiction was popular across film, TV, literature and radio – but not on stage. Jokingly, it ended with “Go on, RSC, put Hamlet on the Death Star”. A decade later, the RSC decide to have a punt – sort of – with their latest production of Troilus and Cressida, which is set in a postapocalyptic, Mad Max­-style landscape. Yes, that has happened. It is a thing that has been made.

Gregory Doran, RSC’s Artistic Director and director of this specific show, says that Troilus and Cressida is full of modern relevance: war, trauma, machismo, backstabbing, and so on. He’s not wrong: we see chest-thumping male soldiers clash on the macro and micro level, driven by ego and lust; generals pursue and manipulate the conflict for their own betterment; royals and rulers (dare we call them elites?) debate love, philosophy and morality – a far cry from their troops, who are dying in the field. What we do not see is just as revealing – the citizens of Troy are unseen, clearly unimportant to the greater political and military campaign. Their lives are erased from the play (Shakespeare’s choice), and this speaks to the human cost of our global politics (Doran’s focus). So, either by presence or absence, this is an ugly world: brutal, oily, cruel. Doran’s conceit is that the postapocalyptic setting tells us something about the sadly immutable and inevitable nature of war – even after we have ruined the planet, we will still fight amongst the wreckage.

So the nihilistic, futuristic tone of Troilus and Cressida is thankfully more than just decoration – it’s tied to the show’s narrative, and is supported by Doran’s directorial choices, as well as the work of Niki Turner, Matt Daw and Evelyn Glennie on design, lighting and composition respectively. The cast are suitably bedecked in a mishmash of classical armour and contemporary stylings – there are Roman helmets and Viking horns mixed with the grungy leather of biker gangs. It’s as Mad Max as you can get without being melodramatic (or in breach of copyright) – there are quad bikes, tin drums, shipping containers and a gilded cage suspended above the space that holds Helen of Troy – just like the sex slaves in Fury Road, she is part untouchable beauty, part prisoner of war. Suzanne Bertish is an excellent Agamemnon, with a huge hairdo inspired by both Tina Turner's character Aunt Entity in Beyond the Thunderdome, and the disturbing, deified villain Immortan Joe from Fury Road. Adjoa Andoh’s Ulysses is exactly the sort of person whose passion you’d follow into battle, only to find them abandoning the enterprise if it best suited them. And Amber James as Cressida has real presence and gravitas – a shining beacon of a performance in this nasty, visceral world.

Photos by Helen Maybanks

My main reservation with the show is that it is, aside from the look of the thing, in every other way still a typical RSC production. The acting throughout is superb but very Look At Me, I Am Acting. There’s the usual RSC attempt at humour – the silly little audience interaction bit, and the bit where we play with the emphasis for comedic effect, but not so much that we actually dare change anything, heaven forfend. Granted, the metallic and noisome soundscape is vastly different to most other RSC productions, but it’s used to the same effect – practically every scene begins and ends with a fanfare, and that’s about it. And the show is nearly three and a half hours long. I am amazed at my fellow audience members’ ability to not twitch, fidget and shuffle throughout – even when I’m enjoying it, I want to get up and run around.

However, that’s the nature of the beast, and much as I’d love them to do a cut-down, super-focused version like Joe Hill-Gibbins’ Measure for Measure at the Young Vic a few years back, I know what I’ve signed up for – long, careful and occasionally ponderous is the RSC stock-in-trade.

But, but, but – the very fact that the Royal Shakespeare Company, one of our most internationally recognised theatres, is comfortable with exploring this kind of territory, is inevitably a good thing. Yes, the night I saw it, the audience was still skewed towards a certain end of the pale/frail axis, but that’s something of an inevitability with the RSC, and I don’t expect the audience demographics to alter massively just because it’s gone a bit pop-culture – indeed, you can take it as a win that its typical audience was present in excellent numbers, and not warded off by the show’s pulpy, cinematic aesthetic. This is great, because science fiction is not dumb, or scary; there is room for all of us, with shades and ideas to suit the popcorn-munching blockbuster-type (me) and the more intellectually-minded theatregoer (also me).

This is a play that deserves a longer life – I saw the RSC’s recent Macbeth when it was still in Stratford, and found it pretty dull, bereft of focus and interest. Troilus and Cressida has precision, heft and clarity – if Macbeth can end up in the West End (presumably because it stars a relatively memorable Christopher Eccleston), this latest production should be seen there, too. It does something new, and it does it very well – it reveals the strength and relevance of popular culture, while revelling in its stylistic madness. We’ve for years reaped the benefits of transplanting Shakespeare’s words into a new setting, revealing not only their timelessness but their resonance, their ability to reflect and impact the world in which we live. This Troilus and Cressida proves that the same is true for science fiction – it’s a genre of weight, accessibility and power.