Sometimes when the RSC brings its big guns to bear on a great work from its Stratford repertoire it provokes a reaction in the critic which, disturbingly, can actually amount to satisfaction. I know one will go to other productions of this play and appreciate new solutions of its problems; John Barton's approach is not flawless - not quite, anyway - but after two viewings of his complex, persuasive treatment I for one am frankly so impressed by its combination of scholarship and theatricality that I could in all humility cross Troilus and Cressida off an over-crowded list of plays to be seen and puzzled over. Why? Because, for my money, its questions are answered.
Not that there can ever be one ideal conception of a work which nullifies all others, obviously, but the reading which Barton and his cast give of this play, widely considered a difficult and inconsistent piece, is just very good indeed, thorough in its understanding and most exciting as a stage experience. Its strength is not to be realised in some external fashion, pinning the play into place through some grand visual image, a style of costume or setting which can sum it all up, but rather an ability to dig deep into the intellectual content of the lines and present with clarity what it discovers.
As, for instance, that Thersites, for all the authority of Norman Rodway's scurrilously obscene playing, is not the Chorus figure we thought he was, representing the author's cynicism (cynical is a bad description, anyway, it's a strongly realistic work), but a version of the Shakespearean Fool with a personality and a function all his own, a character whose diseased caperings may illuminate parts of the action but do not necessarily state a final verdict on them. Or that Troilus is not merely the wronged lover but also a mature politician and the physical equal of his brother, Hector, in battle. And that Cassandra, a perilously symbolic figure, is not solely a portentous siren of doom but a genuine mad woman as well, tolerated but disregarded by her chuckling brothers.
In consequence the whole shape of the play seems more logical, the moods better orchestrated than ever before. Cressida's first scene with Pandarus, for instance, when her uncle points out the Trojan leaders as they return from the day's skirmishing, makes particular sense when Troilus is, as here, a convincing soldier and not just the juvenile lead, while the Trojan council scene in its staging neatly echoing the Greek one which it closely follows, again benefits from the emergence of Troilus as a more mature man than the usual young upstart.
From the point of view of spectacle the scene after the contest between Hector and Ajax, in the text merely a dozen lines of hearty back-slapping and 'good nights', becomes a dazzling set-piece of erotic, torch-lit revelry, with Achilles sporting a blonde Helen of Troy wig and indulging in some overtly sexual foolery with Thersites and his phallic codpiece, to the discomfiture of Menelaus, and the final battle scenes, all too often in past productions a jolly confusion of smoke and tottering supers, are here a relevant climax to the play, not least because we know far better than we have done before exactly who these people are.
For, above all, this is a production which resets the balance of the various roles in the story, and by refusing to overemphasise the importance of any one group of characters lets us in on Shakespeare's intention with exceptional clarity. We have long inherited the Victorian or even earlier view of the play as an untidy blending of a love story with a political one, with great expositions of the council scenes and the subsequent wooing of Achilles working uneasily alongside the nobly personal poetry of troilus and his misplaced affection.
Barton's most impressive achievement in a production positively crammed with scrupulous detail is in recognising those latter scenes as the axis of the play, and in this as throughout he is very fortunate in his cast. Helen Mirren's Cressida is the most assuredly successful young performance for the RSC since estelle Kohler's Juliet, intelligently sensual in manner, vulnerable in her attractiveness yet scorning to invite our sympathy for a failure which is not wholly beyond her means to prevent.
All the other performances are excellent - David Waller's pastily camp Pandarus, Sebastian Shaw as a sinewy and often oddly humorous Ulysses and Alan Howard, once again way out on his own in this company with an Achilles which is a creation of awesome individuality, a posing, beautiful figure which cloaks but never conceals its latent viciousness; but above all stands Michael Williams' Troilus, gained in strength even on last year's Stratford playing, providing the important link between the differing elements of the text with a wonderfully powerful and sustained characterisation.
Plays and Players, August, 1969