Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 28 May, 2008

In my review of the Cheek By Jowl Russian company’s Boris Godunov a couple of weeks ago I felt unusually positive about director Declan Donnellan’s technique of using the spatial relationships of his players onstage to indicate emotional and psychological relationships between characters. It couldn’t last, of course.
CbJ’s English company’s Troilus And Cressida is also played in traverse; the audience sits on either side of a long, narrow stage about two-thirds the size of a singles tennis court. And for much of the three-hour-plus evening, it feels not unlike watching a tennis match, but one in which the players are only allowed to stand either at the baseline or the net. Either end or the middle, that’s pretty much it. When Troilus (Alex Waldmann) finally meets his beloved Cressida (Lucy Briggs-Owen) in person, he moves right up to her to make his first direct profession of love, but as soon as he begins speaking he jogs backwards about 30 feet; this may be psychologically illuminating (denial of gratification and whatnot), but not as much as it is theatrically annoying. Meanwhile, beyond the walls of Troy among the besieging Greek forces, the wily Ulysses (Ryan Kiggell, in the best-pitched performance of the evening) practises what Jeeves called “the psychology of the individual” to persuade the arrogant Achilles to take to the battlefield once more, but he conducts this one-to-one chat from a distance that virtually requires bellowing.
Matters improve a little after the interval: you can’t fight hand-to-hand at such a distance. The scene in which the Trojan lords are feasted in the Greek tents on the eve of battle also pays off the initially odd-seeming decision to have Richard Cant play the misanthropic Thersites as a Scouse drudge in light drag (I defy anyone to watch his performance and not think of Lily Savage): this is illuminated when, done up in Dietrich glam, he lets fly all his most scabrous truths under the licence of cabaret. The warlords of both sides then begin waltzing together, which again may say something about masculine martial camaraderie but strikes me as a little too “Greek” in the circumstances. In this staging, the main plot is devoid of amorous tension in either the winning or the losing, and likewise nothing feels at stake either in the war overall or in the Greek factionalism.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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