Barton, exploiting his insight for all it's worth, brings onstage an extraordinary Achilles: a prancing, bespangled queen with dyed blonde hair and shaved legs. When his woman's longing is fulfilled, and this creature meets Hector at an inter-army love-in, he throws open what appears to be a nightdress and flaunts his sinuous torso at him. Alan Howard brings a sulky intensity to the part and, hissing at his enemies like a cat in heat, is consistently more sinister han he is camp. He successfully fends off the wrong sort of laughter. Indeed, it's a brave performance that might be extremely impressive in another play; but it's also, of course, an absurdly sensational piece of exaggeration. Shakespeare's Achilles is decently bisexual, like Plato's Alcibiades and a million other virile young Greeks. If anyone is to be obviously effeminate, it should surely be Patroclus, the 'masculine whore' at the receiving end. The true eccentricity of Howard's reading becomes clear when Sebastian Shaw's canny Ulysses tells him that he knows of his secret love for Priam's daughter Polyxena. 'Ha! Known?' asks Achilles; and at this point Howard writhes, moans and clutches himself in an agony that I, for one, found quite bewildering. Was he trying to suggest that Achilles was painfully torn between two illicit passions? Or that his drag was really an elaborate cover-up for a politically embarrassing crush? I don't know, and I suspect that Messrs Howard and Barton don't know either. For all its surface brilliance, their conception seems inadequately thought out, either in terms of the character or, which is worse, in terms of the play as a whole.
Benedict Nightingale, New Statesman, 16.8.68.
Much as I admired this production at Stratford last year, I was not prepared for the awe-inspiring version that now arrives in London.....
Sebastian Shaw's Ulysses, for instance, is now a Muggeridge-like figure, doubled up with laughter at Troilus's romantic agony: and in the party scene, the transvestite Achilles (Alan Howard) now stages a full masquerade of the rape of Helen. In these days of facile sexual display, the production reawakens you to the real savagery of erotic art.
In some quarters it has been dismissed as an
eccentric reading. Personally, I can now imagine no other interpretation; but
even if you do dispute the logic of bringing down the curtain on a sword and a
phallus, the production is packed from minute to minute with intensely realized
life and gives you the unfakable experience of being exposed to a masterpiece.
Today, I must say that though the shock remains the reluctance to admit it to be justified is gone. The first reason for this is Alan Howard's performance as Achilles. It seems to me to be of a higher order of excellence than it was at Stratford; or now perhaps my eyes are opened. Mr. Howard accepts all the difficult aspects of Achilles's character, his delight in presenting himself as a whore, even his treachery, and by seeing right through to the man's ambiguous and troubled heart creates for him a profound sympathy. His pained, thrilled cry, "I have a woman's longing, An appetite that I am sick withal, To see great Hector," and his sudden lassitudes of satisfied lust reveal to us so greatly aching a misery that moral judgments are swallowed up in compassion.
In the scene in which Hector is murdered, Mr.
Howard's Achilles is at least as grand as he is hateful. Tall, graceful, and
terrifying, his body painted with black snakelike curves, he towers balefully
like something magnificent and evil from primeval Africa. The effect is
A Queer Twist to Shakespeare
To seek a fresh interpretation of Shakespeare is an honourable pursuit by which an actor or director may win himself credit and renown; but to alter or manipulate his text so as to make it yield meanings which the author did not intend is vandalism. Just such vandalism has in my view been committed by John Barton in his current version of Troilus and Cressida at Stratford.
With no justification at all, and hardly any excuse, he has travestied the character of Achilles, turning the great Greek warrior-hero into a flabby, effeminate creature, in such poor physical shape that the least athletic Trojan could have taken him on. That done, Mr Barton invents a series of rather nasty orgies for his false Achilles to indulge in. The whole emphasis of these scenes is on perversion.
On the first night at Stratford, as the production went interminably on (its a longish play anyhow, and Mr Barton's decorations made it a 3¾ -hour job), I grew increasingly suspicious that Shakespeare was being subjected to an impertinence; that his text was being tampered with. I didn't, of course, suspect Mr Barton of putting into Shakespeare's play words that Shakespeare hadn't written: what I thought he was doing was to rearrange some of Shakespeare's words and omit others so as to imply meanings which had not been there in the original text.
My adverse criticism of this part of Mr Barton's production turns, clearly, on the relations between Achilles and Patroclus. In common, I think, with most of my critical colleagues, I was under the impression that these two, in Troilus and Cressida though not in Homer, were male lovers, and that while Shakespeare had not precisely said so he had given hints broad enough to justify the conclusion. That is the way the parts have been read in most stage productions of the play that I have seen.
What I was expecting to find, then, when I re-read Troilus and Cressida on my return from Stratford, was that Shakespeare, while representing Achilles as having an "affair" with Patroclus, did not allow this to interfere with his career as the admitted first soldier of his time, and would therefore never have allowed himself to deteriorate into the soft near-transvestite of Mr Barton's invention.
In The Text
I can only find two direct references to the alleged "affair" in the play; both are hypothetical, and neither is expected to be believed.
One comes from Patroclus himself. After Ulysses has shaken Achilles's confidence by his great speech about the evanescence of personal fame, and has departed, Patroclus turns to his chief and says:
To this effect, Achilles, have I moved
This is not lover speaking to lover, but a junior officer speaking to a senior whom he has been giving good advice which has been disregarded. And what he says is "That's just what I've been telling you. You loll about the camp it gets you a bad name. They know we're old friends, and they blame me for what you're doing. They think it's me you're having an affair with. Snap out of it, old man, and do your stuff. You can't go on with this Polyxena business. After all, there is a war on."
I regard the mention of Cupid as absolute proof that Patroclus has Polyxena in mind. Nobody, I hope, is going to suggest that the little god was anything but strictly heterosexual.
The other direct allusion which Shakespeare allows any of his characters to make comes from a source entirely suspect. Thersites, exercising his fool's licence to be uninhibitedly offensive to his social superiors, says to Patroclus "Thou art thought to be Achilles male varlet." This is a reference to the same rumour about which we have just seen Patroclus himself warning Achilles. How much faith Thersites puts in it appears in the next scene, where Thersites, soliloquising for the audience's benefit, says that Patroclus is a notorious womaniser.
So the question rises, why on earth did John
Barton, working in the one theatre above all others where Shakespeare's
integrity ought to be respected, commit the enormity of eliminating one of
Shakespeare's major characters from a play, and substituting an outrageous
travesty of his own devising? I feel sure he did not intend to insult the Bard
in his own house, for he does not seem to be that kind of man: but that is what
he has done.
Orgy scene is not justified
Sir - the article by your dramatic critic, Mr W.A. Darlington, says a number of things about the production of Troilus and Cressida at Stratford-upon-Avon that certainly needed saying. Indeed, the article in general could well be applied to several recent productions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
It so happened that I saw this play the day before Mr Darlington's article appeared. By a freak, I imagine, there was sufficient overhead light left on in the dress circle to make it possible to follow a text.
With certain notable exceptions, Royal Shakespeare Theatre actors do not seem to have learnt to speak their lines audibly unless one is in the first 15 rows of the stalls.
Certainly, large sections of the text had been omitted, 10 or 12 lines at a time. However, while following the text under these conditions and at the normal speed that plays are taken, it was not possible to judge whether, as Mr Darlington says, "the words were omitted so as to imply meanings which had not been in the original text."
What did become clear, beyond any doubt, was that Mr Barton had taken the liberty of introducing a highly sensational drunken homosexual orgy scene with no justification whatever.
The sole basis in fact lies in four lines from Act V, Scene 1: -
Enter Hector, Troilus, Ajax,
Agamemnon and others.
- and on these four short lines we are treated to four or five minutes of irrelevant unpleasantness.
Furthermore, Mr Barton seems to have mislaid his dictionary. The cast in the text which I have, based on the First Folio, says "Thersites, a scurrilous Greek." However, we are presented with an actor made up to emphasise a terrible collection of raw and running sores, and a diseased skin. Can it be that Mr Barton does not know the difference between "scurrilous" (which even in the widest span of Roget's Thesaurus has no medical connotation) and "scabious." Surely not!
Further sensationalism perhaps?
L.C. Gayer, Lt. Col.
.............Howard hasn't yet achieved a
perfect understanding with some of the members of his audiences - particularly
with his portrayal of Achilles as an effeminate creature in sort of white
kaftan and wearing a blonde bun. He mimics the outraged Colonel who said, 'To
suggest that Achilles was a homosexual is just not on' and the polite hostility
of the Stratford shopkeepers who say they haven't 'actually seen Troilus and
Cressida', but have 'heard funny things about it'. Howard claims textural
support for his interpretation...........He defends the kaftan as good leisure
wear for skulking in tents - and a good device to cope with all the references
in the text to Achilles's splendid sinews. 'I told John Barton I could strip
fairly well, but I couldn't manage that much.'