No matter how hard each age struggles to mould a Hamlet in its own image, the revenge-tradition pins down a good part of his split personality in the renaissance. After centuries of neglect, Troilus and Cressida has surprisingly proved the more malleable to modernity: and last year's Stratford production by John Barton, now in repertory at the Aldwych, mirrors the late sixties as surely as Peter Hall's version was attuned to the earlier years of the decade. When that production reached London the Cuba crisis was at its height: last week's opening coincided with that of Oh Calcutta.
The evenings major weakness is inseperable from its strength. Integrity to the text makes for crystal clarity of meaning - but also for a turgid last half-hour on the battlefield, which is as extraneous to Mr. Barton's interpretation as the sordid murder of Hector was central to Mr. Hall's. His Troy is full of suntanned, scantily clad youths, cheerfully committed to the cause of cuckoldry: and only Alan Howard's Achilles - effeminate but icy - commands respect among the Greeks, whose elders are guyed, and whose most persuasive spokesman, Ulysses, is transformed by Sebastian Shaw into a detached misanthrope, his trenchant philosophising mocked by much slapping of withered thighs.
The interpretation works, however one might wish it fitted our own attitudes less aptly. It works best of all in Troilus wooing of Cressida - utterly sensual and no more than a formality to the business of hopping into bed with her. And who better than Pandarus - David Waller as the decaying, delighted voyeur, like some middle-aged pop pundit getting vicarious kicks from his youthful charges - to embody the permissive society? And yet: changing sexual mores have us sneering at the fuss over Isabella's virginity in Measure for Measure, so how is it that we still share Troilus's sense of betrayal? Why should this pert youth, randy rather than romantic, get so excessively upset by the unfaithfulness of a girl he knows is an easy lay? Certainly, Helen Mirren's Cressida never pretends to be more than a coquette. Perhaps Michael Williams's Troilus responds with thwarted desire rather than jealousy? Or perhaps this is where permissiveness breaks down anyway, as man broods watchfully over a chosen mate? I don't know: but the production prompts such questions, and makes the play as up-to-date as the latest murder and rape statistics from the topless towers of New York.
Playing Shakespeare/Troilus and Cressida