This is asking for trouble. Troilus and Cressida, arguably the most problematic of Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays, squashed almost into a one-acter, then followed by the author’s most overtly political drama, Coriolanus, similarly shortened.
But then trouble, at least the kind that turns into war, is what the Lazarus Theatre Company is after. It is so named because of its singular resurrections of the classics and here it is justifying its christening twice over. Going straight to the heel of the hunt, it titles this joint evening Our World At War, leaving us in no doubt, as if we ever had any, that Shakespeare’s merciless portraits of societies in a permanent condition of military conflict have lost none of their relevance.
It’s a bold company that does combat with Troilus, in which Shakespeare undercuts his visions of erotic love and human harmony with chilling epigrams on failure and decay, and Lazarus does not lack guts. Watching and hearing CJ de Mooi’s Thersites, I found myself suspecting, unoriginally, that Shakespeare’s inner cynic found more house room in this subversive chorus of a character than in any of his other gargoyles. Why else the beautiful, bleak poetry on the plain reality of being human, therefore perishable? If anything nudges the play further towards tragedy than the debatable lands between that and comedy, it is this.
Why, and by whom, was Troilus tagged problematic? What critical laws declared that it should share this category with All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, all three written in the last years of the sixteenth century and first of the seventeenth?
The coinage came from the Victorian critic F.S. Boas and was borrowed from the prevalent language of Ibsenites, for whom it referred to the playwright’s handling of social and moral dilemmas of the day. So to prefix a play with the word “problem” was to start addressing its treatment of a given subject, rather than to imply that it lived in some strange stylistic hinterland. Well, yes, absolutely; Troilus is rich and toxic with statements on love and fidelity and more particularly on the conflict between the claims of the heart and the interests of the state. In this respect it addresses the classic Shakespeare concerns of public and private morality, while being more determined than any of his other plays to shun the business of conclusions. “All the argument,” says Thersites, “is a whore and a cuckold.”
Lazarus takes it on with the certainty of its uncertainty, drawing an acute pathos from Nicholas Farr as Troilus and a chilly appeal from Colette O’Rourke as the object of his love – or is it just lust? Ricky Dukes, directing both plays, has drilled his cast with great tautness and precision. His rendering of the Greeks through the use of masks and a chorus of prolonged, dehumanised guffawing, is particularly powerful.
In the limited space of the Tristan Bates stage at the Actors’ Centre, his players are the principal components of his set, their alignments the boundaries of their respective kingdoms. This is no less so in Coriolanus, in which we see Kerry Willison-Parry (creatively cast as a female Priam in Troilus) reclaim her gender and turn Volumnia, the hero’s mother, into a strikingly female presence in this evening of self-slaughtering manhood.
Here too is Prince Plockey, Hector and Agamemnon in Troilus, now taking on the title role. A more conventional production might have cast the imposing Dyfed Cynan (Aeneas and Menelaus for the first half of the evening) as Coriolanus. Instead he gets Aufidius, which imposes an almost comic mismatch on the drama’s central duel between him and Big C., who here is diminutive and black. I say “almost” because Plockey lacks nothing in that grandeur which comes from self-belief and natural authority. As for the colour-casting, it’s not, to use that word again, a problem. It is after all eleven years since Adrian Lester played Henry V at the National.
Compared with Troilus, the preoccupations of Coriolanus surely come much more directly from Shakespeare’s own life and circumstances. Impossible that the grain riots and the Midland Revolt were absent from this Stratford landowner’s mind at the time he was writing the play. In this Ibsenite sense, here was the stuff of problems all right. As ever, this particular citizen had less transitory disputes on his agenda – like that between filial and military honour, democracy and charismatic leadership.
But, as in Troilus, there is something else going on, something altogether darker and harder to be categorical about. Here, as Dukes’ production affirms, that something is love; or is it actually lust again? Male, homo-erotic, classically sanctioned love. Remember, when Aufidius accuses Coriolanus of betrayal, it is ostensibly because he has been won back by his Roman allegiances. But aren’t we forgetting something? He has also opted for his own mother in preference to his military rival. These are plays in which the word love is freighted with its many opposites. In Troilus, the chief of these was lust; now, in Coriolanus, martial prowess is spoken of with such reverence that the soldiers’ engagements are spoken of almost as though they are amorous interlockings. Make Love Not War? Nice idea, but it will never catch on. There’s the real problem, and Lazarus wrestles with it nobly.
Troilus and Cressida/Coriolanus
Cast: Troilus – Nicholas Farr, Cressida – Colette O’Rourke , Pandarus – Matt Butcher, Priam – Kerry Willison -Parry, Aeneas /Menelaus – Dyfed Cynan, Hector / Agamenon Prince Plockey, Helenus / Patroclus – Paul Christian -Rogers, Paris – Stephen Horncastle, Andromache – Micha Colombo, Cassandra – Charlotte Mafham, Achilles / Ulysses – Simon Haycock, Nestor – Leo Garrick, Calchas – Toby Liszt, Diomedes – Chris Machari, Thersites – CJ de Mooi, Helen of Troy – Rebecca Severn.
Creative: Written by William Shakespeare, Adapted and Directed by Ricky Dukes, Lighting Design by Stuart Glover, Sound Design by Neil McKeown, Associate Director – Gavin Harrington-Odedra, Dramaturge – Sara Reimers, Stage Manager – Ina Berggren, Company Photographer – Adam Trigg, Production Graphic Designer – Will Beeston.
Tristan Bates Theatre
Dates 18th August to 6th September 2014, Monday to Saturday,
Troilus and Cressida at 7.30pm, Coriolanus at 9.00pm
Venue Tristan Bates Theatre
Tickets £15.00, £10 (Concessions)
Friday 22nd August 2014