Sex and warfare at Stratford

Perhaps because Shakespeare labelled him a scurrilous Grecian, no one has trusted Thersite's view of Troilus and Cressida as all wars and lechery. John Barton has now done so, and the result is the most coherent and impassioned version of the play I have yet seen.

The other elements - honour, dignity, love - are there only to be poisoned. For once, Troilus and Cressida seems an uncomplicated, almost schematic work. It takes place under the emblem of a golden bull, symbolizing at once the Guernica-like carnage and the cuckolding of Menelaus that gives the war its pretext. And what the production shows is that all the Trojans and Greeks need is a pretext. There is no attempt - as in Mr Barton's 1960 production - to give the two sides separate characteristics. Off duty they were rogues of rough matting; on the battlefield they are almost naked. The encounter is voluptuous and both sides desire it.

At first the production draws you into this infected atmosphere by glamourizing it - both in the balletic collision of oiled bodies and at the very centre of the war on Helen's vast bed. The Helen-Pandarus scene is usually played satirically, but here Sheila Allen gives it an erotic charge that makes other matters seem unimportant compared with a shimmering golden robe and a hand exploring his cheek.

With this established the production proceeds to show intoxication swelling into madness, and in such a way as to bring sex and warfare ever closer together. Alan Howard's Achilles, for instance, at first seems simply odd - an effeminate joker suggesting a renegade German governess. But with Hector's arrival in the Grecian camp he changes into a reptile emitting snake-like hisses and appearing on the litter in full drag costume and blonde hairpiece to dance with the man he is to kill. In the circumstances betrayal of Troilus presents no problem. Helen Mirren plays her as a sensual child who is on the point of seducing her uncle before Troilus takes her, and who moves over with equal facility to Diomedes. Pandarus and Thersites appear a two aspects of the same character at different stages of disillusion. David Waller's Pandarus is a whey-faced voyeur whose appetite can still be tickled. Norman Rodway's Thersites is a voyeur capable only of disgust. One binding element in the production is its use of rhythmic games (as in the question-and-answer routines in Achilles' tent): and these reach their climax in the final scene, played by Pandarus with Thersites on the tambourine, like a pair of diseased buskers.

Irving Wardle

The Times, 9.8.68


Playing Shakespeare/Troilus and Cressida