Sitting down to a blockbuster evening of kultur as with last weeks three-and-a-quarter-hour-long production of Shakespeares Troilus and Cressida (Radio 3, March 6th) we are bound to feel dutiful and meritorious. Een before the first whither or wherefore has been uttered, you feel youve earned yourself the equivalent in compensating trash say, four weeks Dallas watching.
Those grudging feelings about Shakespeare are usually swept smartly into out critical recesses, yet they shouldnt be. Shakespeare is hard for modern audiences, radio Shakespeare doubly so. Should Radio 3, with sterling Reithiness, still be feeding it to us? After David Spensers outstanding production, the only conclusion is yes.
But this isnt to underestimate the formidable problems of translating it from stage to studio. One difficulty is the language itself. On stage you can always illustrate an archaism visually or gesturally. On radio youre stuck with the words themselves and Troilus and Cressida is clogged with incomprehensible phrases denoting sexual disgust, and sexual punning. Which of us, for example, knows that Neapolitan bone-ache is syphilis, or that the galléd goose of Winchester is an angry prostitute? (Only those of us with the Signet Classic Shakespeare.) A radio audience, therefore, can aspire at best to semi-comprehension.
And Troilus and Cressida is the most problematic of Shakespeares so-called problem plays. Taking the classical story of the Trojan War, it links the public and private domains the Greek victory in killing Hector, a Greek wooing Cressida to betray Troilus in a theme about inconstancy. But to achieve it, the characters themselves are inconsistent, Troilus passing from a billing-and-cooing lovesick youth to a rip-roaring warrior, Cressida from true love to true love with someone else, in a matter of dramatic minutes.
Spencers production made sense of all this in the most felicitous way. As well as the humour, he brought out the full astringency and cynicism of the play the putrefaction of every heroic ideal, even using the cry of a vulture to punctuate the decline. It sounded good, aided by Christos Pittas music, compelling Mediterranean melodies in lieu of the usual stage classical tinkles. And while much of the play is still, perforce, dense bombast, Spencer (who, as a Wunderkind actor, played Troilus in BBC radios last production, 19 years ago) netted a formidable cast to animate it.
Maureen OBrien beautifully played Cressida as a squeaky sex kitten a wanton from the start, with come-hitherish inflections. Michael Penningtons superb Troilus began with conventional almost droll poetic hyperbole, and grew into a fully-fledged tragic hero. His speech after witnessing Cressidas betrayal was masterly: when he wailed O Cressid! O false Cressid! his whole being was in danger of splintering. Norman Rodways steely, sinewy Ulysses dominated the play: a brilliant impersonation of a cold Puppeteer, relishing his rhetoric, ironic and manipulative. And David Buck, in a virtuoso performance (just hovering on overkill) played Ajax as a lumpish buffoon, an Arthur Mullard type of thickie.
But the revelation of the production was Alan Howard an obvious for Achilles or Ulysses or even Hector but who, in a daring piece of casting, played the Elizabethan Fool role of Thersites. Though he started out with insufficient scurrility sounding less like a social irritant than a camp hairdresser he grew into a grotesquely scabrous thing, a leering commentator on sexual and political satiety. His couplet on Cressidas cupidity veered from a castrato cackle to a reverberating bass growl (whore) dehumanising and spine chilling. To those who say that radio Shakespeare is another example of radio elitism, it must be said that even if such productions glean a meagre audience 100,000 or less this is larger than most major theatrical productions, and includes those who dont have access to the theatre
The Listener, 13.3.80