For centuries, Shakespeare’s take on the Trojan war has been written off as unstageable, and with good reason - the play is an absolute disaster, with plot threads strewn about like blobs on a Jackson Pollock. It is in the face of such adversity that Cheek by Jowl have returned to the Barbican, premiering their best attempts at dramaturgy first in France (way to honour their ACE funding...) before landing at the Barbican to deliver 195 minutes of sheer and utter boredom to London audiences.
Unfortunately, despite what the RZ’s tutor described as massive edits and streamlining, Troilus and Cressida is still an indeterminate mess as well as a paragon to false advertising. The titular lovers have little stage time, their romance being a mere subplot which could easily have been discarded (except then the play would need to be retitled), rather the focus is on the challenge between Hector and Achilles and the interference run by Ajax. Being unfamiliar with the original edition of the text (nobody stages it and it’s not on most American syllabi), the RZ can’t comment on the extent of the edits, but a girl was loudly complaining on her way out about how the company hacked up the play. Given that plays in Shakespeare's day would have been edited to run for two hours, the RZ feels that it was under-cut.
Visually, the acclaimed Nick Ormerod (half of the CxJ über-duo) goes for the glory but falls short, placing the show in a traverse that resembles something between a nomadic camp and a cheap circus. Again failing to live up to advertising, there is an utter lack of creepy clown masks (first image) on stage, but we do see gas masked Greeks as well as Ormerod’s clear love of first person shooters, as the warriors don a full set of steel helmets and cricket pads to look like squishy rejects from Halo (second and third images). It’s the same deal for both sides, except the Grecians have their kit painted black while the Trojans wear lots and lots of white, reducing the Iliad to a beginner’s game of chess. As the cast go knocking over stools and wrinkling the long strip rugs we’re treated so some bland lighting (with one good effect at the end) and a lack of purpose from the setup.
Declan Donnellan (the other CxJ wunderkind) has plenty to answer for as well, not least of which the pitiful battle scene which looked like it was inspired by God of War. One of the RZ’s classmates questioned why the production was staged in traverse at the interval, but nobody had an answer by the end. Usually such a staging allows for a feeling of claustrophobia or intimacy, but neither was to be found here. Donnellan’s direction has also provided one of the most annoying characters in recent history to pervade the London stage in the form of Ryan Kiggell’s obnoxiously stilted Ulysses. With a pair of skinheads as Achilles (Paul Brennan) and shouting Scotsman Ajax (Laurence Spellman, whom the RZ suspects escaped from the tour of Black Watch) and a boy band filling out the ranks of the young Trojans. Given the quantity of homoerotic subtext present in the text now magnified by the staging, the RZ wondered if Cheek by Jowl should have thrown out most of the script and produced a Shakespearean porno instead, especially with the presence of Richard Cant as tranny maid Thersites.
There’s no doubt, however, that Shakespeare fans will discuss this production for years to come, as Troilus and Cressida is so rarely staged. Indeed, the RZ’s class was evenly split between “found it OK” and “didn’t like it,” and he is admittedly not a fan of Shakespeare, so take this review with a large block of salt. In the RZ’s opinion, however, the best seats are in another venue and suggests taking in some Brecht at the Young Vic instead.
Where: Barbican Main Theatre
When: Until 14 June, M-Sa @ 19:15, Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £25
Concessions: Cheek by Jowl reconfigure the venue so seating is more limited than usual, so no concessions.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £0. While the fight was laughably bad and the drag cabaret provided a moment of amusement in the second half, they don’t make up for the fact that this is a messy, dull play that no amount of Bardolatry can justify.
RZ Other Notes: Yes, I panned Shakespeare. Let the flaming begin.