A few months ago Michael Meyer's The Ortolan was published by Hart-Davis, several years after its first production by the OUDS at the Marston Hall. It was written by Mr Meyer some time before he acquired his formidable reputation as a translator of Ibsen and Strindberg, and his characters explain themselves with remarkable lucidity. It is a tragedy of the suffering caused by vicarious creativity; but another point has made it this week of special interest. It has been produced twice, at Oxford and then in Manchester; and on each occasion the least important part in the play was taken by an actress who at the time was completely unknown to the big theatre-going public, but who later became famous. In 1954 the actress was Margaret (now Maggie) Smith; and in 1966 she was Helen Mirren, who in the following year achieved celebrity in Alls Well that Ends Well, and is now the heroine of John Barton's production of Troilus and Cressida (Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-on-Avon).
It would be pleasant to say that Miss Mirren has actually increased her celebrity this week; but Mr Barton's production, which presses upon the very limits of provocation, gives her no chance to do so.
It is hardly too much to say that Mr Barton sees this most disputed of Shakespeare's tragedies, not as Troilus and Cressida, but as Achilles and Perversion. There are times when the performance appears to be on the point of developing into a homosexual orgy in the midst of which poor Cressida's physical allure and moral delinquency seem a tedious interruption of the main sensational business of the evening, which is to show Achilles as a startling kind of male whore.
Alan Howard, so good so often as a proud, epigrammatic, unfeeling young aristocrat, plays Achilles as if he were a female impersonator. Achilles's hair is artificially golden, and done up in a bun at the back; he has a coquettish smile, and wears a woman's wrapper, which at one point he flings wide open to display coyley to Hector the beauties of his person. In the midnight-party scene, in as daring a gesture as I expect to see even after the censorship is abolished, he lies prostrate on his couch, and seems to invite the hideous Thersites to sexual intercourse. The big perverse moment of the play is not - as I have always seen it - that in which Cressida, after being torn from the arms of Troilus, encourages all the Grecian generals to kiss her in turn. It is rather the enormous cry of rage and pain with which Achilles greets the suggestion that it is conceivable that he might love a woman. Mr Howard's performance is very remarkable; it becomes the glittering centre of the play; some people may find it distasteful.
I have no doubt that Mr Barton has plenty of textual justification for his treatment of Troilus and Cressida. Whatever Achilles may have been in Homer, in Shakespeare he was effeminate. That Mr Barton makes this effeminacy revolting is not to be cavilled at, either. The temper of the play shows that Shakespeare wrote it in a mood of irrational disgust with sex, which he therefore made as unpleasant as possible. Mr Barton comes upon his goal by a relatively unfrequented path, ignoring broader and more attractive thoroughfares; but it would be disingenuous to maintain that it is very far from the goal that Shakespeare intended.
In fact, it may be that it is because it so precisely and powerfully achieves at least part of Shakespeare's aim that I dislike this production so much. Its wine is very bitter. I would much rather, for pleasure's sake, have had a full exploitation of Miss Mirren's enticing charms, and a Troilus who put one less in mind of a gushing, grinning, underprivileged product of an Asia Minor Comprehensive . I would have had the great jewels of poetry polished instead of clouded. I do not wish to learn Shakespeare's lesson as it is taught here. I am forced to conclude that I am not at the moment ready for the full impact of this Troilus and Cressida.
Sunday Times, 11.8.68.