To say that Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is a play doomed to fail on stage is never an overstatement. Directors, and actors alike, are faced with textual obstacles: lengthy monologues, a cluster of forgettable characters, and a story nobody today knows or cares about. Despite his fairly strong cast, director Matthew Dunster cannot fully overcome these challenges.

Dunster treats Troilus and Cressida as it is, perhaps relying too much on the Bard. With [slider title=”noblemen”]

Helen and Paris in her Boudoir
Helen and Paris in her Boudoir in Troilus and Cressida at the Globe Theatre © John Tramper

[/slider] in togas, [slider title=”warriors”]

Warriors Stage Fight
Warriors fight on stage in Troilus and Cressida at the Globe Theatre © John Tramper

[/slider] in thongs and hard leather armour, and the stage plastered up to resemble a [slider title=”Greek Pantheon”]

Globe Theatre stage
Picture of the Globe Theatre stage in Troilus and Cressida © John Tramper

[/slider], there’s nothing fresh about this production.

Directorially, the show fails to solve the problems of a staged ‘problem play’ on multiple levels, causing characteristic incoherence and disintegration of the plot. The love between Troilus and Cressida, not being given much dramatic weight, starts off no better than a churlish affair. Paul Stocker’s bland Troilus bombards Laura Pyper’s free-spirited, determined Cressida with soap-opera-like praise and love that does not show genuine intensity until they are separated by the mandate of the state. Troilus receives the news with a loud, cringe worthy shriek.

In the Greek camp, there is a ‘subtler’ and more sinister mixture of discomfort, fear, threats of sexual harassment and assault when all the men slowly greet Cressida with predatory, forceful kisses. This, to say the least, gives her a valid reason for being fickle, for seeking security from Jay Taylor’s attractive, staunch Diomede. Here the audience is given adequate cause to sympathise with Cressida’s situation but not with her separation from Troilus.

Somewhat ironically, Dunster’s Troilus and Cressida, intended for the Globe’s Young Hearts season, hardly focuses on love at all. The ongoing wars are realistically portrayed as the Trojan warriors return drenched in blood, stumbling with exhaustion. It’s made clear that this tragedy of a nation is caused by the lascivious encounter between Ben Bishop’s repellent Paris and Ania Sowinski’s seductive, polygamous Helen. The Trojans have little choice but to keep fighting to maintain what is left. Heroism seems to be a myth as noble Hector is overthrown by the dark magic of Achilles (Trystan Gravelle), who is spotted with a strong Welsh accent, an awful lot of eyeliner and a black, lightly camp, valet Patroclus. This is an uncompromising depiction of a world plagued by lust and dog-eat-dog warfare, a provocative vision that, if more poignantly executed, could have been a success.

In this case, taking into account the tackiness of the young lovers and the anti-tragic realism of war, Dunster’s production is fractured. Crucial off-stage actions are left to be wondered at, which results in the production being jumbled and not unfolding smoothly enough for the mighty ending. There are some glimmers of directorial genius—Dunster triumphs when tackling the play’s sombre moments—and a few redeeming features, such as Matthew Kelly’s pantomimic, lust-struck Pandarus and the high-octane battle scenes, but that, alone, is not enough to save the show.

40 Responses to “Troilus and Cressida”

  1. James Lark

    2009-08-13T14:56:46+00:00

    Could I suggest that a reviewer who expresses the view that one of Shakespeare’s plays is “doomed to fail on stage” and compounds it with the phrase “perhaps relying too much on the Bard” probably shouldn’t be reviewing Shakespeare at all. This is a fine and unusually clear production of a complex, layered play with a huge amount more going for it than the high-octane battle scenes; if it’s just the latter that floats your boat, Mr Paitayawat, can I recommend the recent ‘Transformers’ film?

    • Poonperm Paitayawat

      2009-08-14T05:52:16+00:00

      Thank you for your comment. I’d like to clarify a certain points that you might have misunderstood in the review. First, the issue you raise about my use of phrases “doomed to fail on stage” and “relying too much on the Bard.” What I intend to mean is that there are a certain number of Shakespeare’s plays that, I believe, are somewhat problematic to be performed on stage in front of modern audiences usually because they are something missing in the text. This can result in incoherence of the characters, inconsistency of the plot, dramaturgy that doesn’t seem to make sense, etc. The plays are, for instance, Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, and Henry VIII. In case of Troilus and Cressida, as I previously mentioned, the problems are as followed:

      1) we don’t see much actions on the stage. Most of the times the actions are reported, which can be boring.
      2) most people today are not familiar with the story, the names of the characters, which makes it even more difficult to follow what is going on, to care for what is happening on stage.

      Thus, there is a need to break down the text to facilitate the audience’s understanding–usually by solving the textual problems with the visual narrative.

      This production of Troilus and Cressida hasn’t done enough for me. I feel the play hasn’t been thoroughly “solved” on stage–hence I wrote “relying too much on the Bard” to mean “relying too much on the Shakespeare’s uneven text.” This is not at all to say that the production is bad. There are certain scenes that are fascinatingly re-interpreted and work so well–from the vibrant market scene, the portrayal of Pandarus, to the relationships between Helen and Paris, between Achilles and Patroclus, between Cressida and Diomede–but they could have been better if these moments are more clearly developed to fit the entire narrative. What I think about this production is that they are some good scenes–and powerful acting from certain cast members–scattered throughout– but mostly in the second half–to keep the audience going and make them leave with the impression that this is an okay show. There are also moments that the actors cannot keep up the energy while interacting with one another, which again results in me feeling only at times engaged by the play.

      I do not think I am being harsh here and I choose to write a review focusing on how the show “failed” me as an audience rather than praising the fine, unconnected moments in the play because I believe I was there to see and write about the show, not the scenes. I don’t think what I say about solving the text is an unachievable task either. I’ve seen a production that did solve these problems (Cheek-by-Jowl’s Troilus and Cressida at the Barbican last year) and I have seen a production that failed (Peter Stein’s at the Edinburgh Festival 3-4 years ago). I’d put the Globe production between those two. They would have made a great production if they developed it a bit more. As you say, Troilus and Cressida is a “complex, layered play,” the show could have make it more approachable. On my way out, I heard some audiences discussing what happened to Cressida at the end because they did not catch the tiny piece of text that says the “heroine”actually dies. After all, most audiences go to see a show for entertainment. I want to feel engaged by the play, not to force myself to follow it. Without the help on the director’s and actor’s part, Troilus and Cressida can be a very unattractive play on stage.

      I’d also like to add a brief note also on my mentioning of the “high octane.” The Globe is always at its best when it comes to battle scenes because their thrust stage helps circulate the energy and involve the audience into the action. To be fair to the show, I decided to add the moments that stood out and this happens to be one of them. I do not think there’s anything wrong with giving an extra credit to what they excel at. I also wonder what do you think stands out for you in this production. I’d much welcome any more discussion of this show.

      • James Lark

        2009-08-15T03:28:14+00:00

        I quite agree that this is a difficult play to stage, for all the reasons you mention. However, if your opening gambit is that it’s never an overstatement to say it’s a play doomed to failure, you suggest that the problems are insurmountable – though clearly in this case it was an overstatement, since you believe you have seen these problems overcome in at least one production.

        I don’t believe this was a perfect production at all – unlike you I actually think the second half was weaker than the first, not least because of the rather incoherent ending you mention. But I do think one of the triumphs of the production is its handling of a very wordy play, not with a series of patronising visual references but by making the dialogue work – overuse of the Bard, as you would have it. It is a complicated play but I found this production easy to follow and never dull. I enjoyed the high octane fighting a great deal, but it was in the context of well-paced and well-characterised dialogue, often fairly high octane itself.

        Far from being made up of occasionally strong moments which “keep the audience going and make them leave with the impression that this is an okay show” (do you really think audiences are so gullible?!) I would say this is a production with a strong interpretation and a good cast which is occasionally let down by a lack of focus – the primary example being the handling of the end, and if you want to be critical of the show you surely ought to bring up Pandarus’ unnecessarily and horribly overdirected (and overacted) reiteration of a speech we’ve already heard.

  2. Peter Knudssen

    2009-09-09T12:42:53+00:00

    Thank you for the comments above. A little above my head as I have never been to the Globe before and to Stratford twice, so I am hardly familiar with Shakespeare since I left school 44 years ago. But I (and my wife) are really looking forward to a day in London at the Globe. Perhaps we will be just as well equipped to enjoy Troilus and Cressida as many of the 17th century audience were.

    Peter Knudssen

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