Heroism takes a quite beating in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the playwright’s shrewdly satirical take on the Trojan War and its many characters. ‘Great’ men litter the action – Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Ulysses – but all have very human, and often laughable, flaws.
In Gregory Doran’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, everyone is clad in post-apocalyptic biker gear, a macho guise of denim, leather and metal that makes it clear these guys are more interested in looking like they know how to fight than actually doing so.
It’s seven years into the war and both sides are lacking enthusiasm for the cause. Helen remains with Paris, but rumblings of uncertainty over whether she’s really worth fighting for are starting to be heard in Troy. Over in the Greek camp, Achilles has withdrawn from the battlefield and is spending most of his time alone with his lover, Patroclus.
Only Ulysses, played with suitable fervour by Adjoa Andoh, appears to care anymore and devises a plan to make Achilles jealous of Ajax, by cooking up a reason for Ajax, in place of Achilles, to fight Hector.
The titular doomed love story, meanwhile, gets very limited stage time (Shakespeare’s choice, not Doran’s). We’re over an hour in before Troilus and Cressida, spurred on by the over-involved uncle Pandarus (a highly amusing Oliver Ford Davies), swiftly declare their love for each other before parting just as quickly.
It’s a shame Shakespeare dedicated so little of the plot to the central pairing as in this particular production the roles are cast and performed very well. Gavin Fowler’s Troilus is sweetly teenage in his affections, whilst Amber James (definitely the staging’s highlight) is clever, stoic and witty – and, one imagines, pretty good at seeing through the warmongering and strutting occurring all around her.
Doran’s big idea for this tricky play has been to partner the action with an otherworldly and domineering soundscape by composer Evelyn Glennie. Junkyard clangings, rumblings and roars emanate either from the team of musicians performing live onstage or from a massive overhead mobile of spare-part machinery that jangles as it spins.
The problem is that despite some short very loud segments early on, the music is then used strangely sporadically. It’s difficult to decipher any obvious pattern or reason for its intermittent inclusion, and it’s not until after the end applause that the musicians really get to let loose with the brilliant array of onstage instruments.
The result is a production that, like the epic heroes trapped in a quagmire, never quite lives up to its promise. But maybe Doran, like TS Eliot, just wants to show that all this manly fighting will inevitably end “not with a bang but a whimper.”