Troilus and Cressida – Rose Playhouse until 15th October
The first thing to know about Troilus and Cressida is that it’s not really about Troilus and Cressida. Or at least not just about them. Based on the Iliad, the play picks up the story of the Trojan Wars seven years in, where we find the Greeks fighting amongst themselves because their leader Agamemnon’s stolen a war prisoner from their star warrior Achilles; he’s now refusing to fight, choosing instead to stay in his tent with his lover Patroclus. In an attempt to revive the conflict, Achilles’ Trojan counterpart Prince Hector challenges any Greek to single combat – a decision that ultimately, via a few twists and turns, leads to his downfall.
Meanwhile, Hector’s younger brother Troilus is in love with Cressida, but the moment she finally admits she feels the same, she’s given away to the Greeks in exchange for a prisoner. Though she swears to be faithful, Troilus later sees her with the Greek Diomedes and believes she’s betrayed him, which leads him also into combat.
It’s a complex plot, with a huge cast of characters – 23 in total – so To The Elephant have done well to condense the story into 80 minutes, stripping away much of the talking about war and focusing instead on the doing of it, without losing any of the significant plot points. It’s also clear who everybody is, even if it’s not always completely obvious which side they’re on; there’s nothing visual to differentiate Trojans from Greeks, so it takes a while for the uninitiated to figure out who’s fighting with who, and – more importantly – why, though that’s a far bigger question.
Using the vast open space at the Rose Playhouse to great effect for the big set pieces, the production gives a feel for the epic scale of the conflict. That said, the necessity for a fence around the archeological site does create a few issues with sight lines at key moments, in particular during the scene in which Cressida is ‘welcomed’ into the Greek camp.
Speaking of which – this is not a story that’s kind to its female characters; they’re all either used as bargaining chips in the conflict or dismissed by the men who think they know better (but don’t). Perhaps in an attempt to make up for this, director Kate Littlewood casts Susie Kimnell and Megan Pemberton as Trojan leaders Agamemnon and Menelaus, alongside their brief appearances as Helen and Cassandra.
They’re not the only cast members to play multiple roles; many of the actors have a foot in both camps (literally). James Meteyard doubles as the military commander Aeneas and the brilliantly caveman-like Greek warrior Ajax, while Atilla Akinci takes on the comic role of Thersites and the fierce Trojan Paris, now married to the stolen Helen. Meanwhile Louis Bowen and Isabel Sutton are sympathetic as the eponymous doomed lovers, though we don’t get much time to share either their happiness or their pain.
With little time for talking, the play is essentially a testosterone-fuelled exploration of the futility of war, which ends abruptly in a breathtaking moment of senseless violence, and sends us away wondering what it was actually all for. In this respect, Troilus and Cressida is as relevant now as it’s ever been, and this is a concise and compelling production that gets straight to its heart.