King's Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2006

I'll bet there's not a bottle of fake tan to be had in the entire Lothian region for love nor money. The Trojan warriors in Peter Stein's Shakespeare production are clad only in loincloths, armoured helms and an implausible bronze sheen. The Greeks have a contrasting pallor, probably likewise cosmetic rather than just the effect of stage lighting and proximity, as if they have spent years of getting sand kicked in their faces.

The first night of this flagship production in the theatre strand of the Edinburgh International Festival was aborted at the interval on Monday evening when the huge moveable rampart at the back of the stage turned out to be a huge stationary rampart. It is not essential to the drama, but nevertheless it and the armies' skin tones are among the few noteworthy aspects of the show.

The play's genre has long been problematic: did Shakespeare consider it a comedy, a history or a tragedy? Stein does nothing to illuminate the matter, opting instead for an excessively straightforward reading with the kind of over-emphatic vocal delivery he can resort to when directing in English. As the young lovers, Henry Pettigrew and Annabel Scholey at times sound downright sing-song in their rhapsodies of romantic suspense. The more experienced actors (including Ian Hogg as Agamemnon, Rachel Pickup as Helen and Jeffry Wickham as Priam) are sometimes little better. Only David Yelland as the wily Ulysses gives a performance which is big enough to fill the King's Theatre without flattening itself into near-caricature. Paul Jesson's Pandarus is transparent in his enterprise of pimping Troilus and Cressida to each other; Ian Hughes' Thersites has no discernible motive for his misanthropic railings, coming across as distracted and febrile.

Stein has little time for nuance or complexity in the script: the moment Cressida sets eyes on her Greek captor Diomedes, it is apparent that Troilus' time has come and gone, which is rather overdoing her status as a byword for female infidelity. Even Malcolm Ranson's normally reliable fight direction is principally of the "bash your sword against his shield, then pause" type. The director has announced that this is to be his final Edinburgh; he has not gone out on a high note.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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