Review – Troilus and Cressida, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 18th October 2018

Troilus and CressidaIt’s hard to imagine, but it’s been 42 years (!) since I last saw a production of Troilus and Cressida. Back in 1976, young Master Chrisparkle got on a train to London to see the National Theatre production at the Young Vic, directed by Elijah Moshinsky, starring Denis Quilley, Roland Culver, Robert Eddison, Mark McManus and Simon Ward. Good grief, all those actors are dead now!

Gavin Fowler as TroilusThis is one of Shakespeare’s hard-to-categorise plays. Traditionally it was always lumped into the comedies, because it’s not a tragedy and it doesn’t fit the usual definition of a history, as it doesn’t concern a British king. But it doesn’t sit comfortably as a comedy either, and the temptation has always been to pretend that it doesn’t exist. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, there were no recorded performances of this play between 1734 and 1898; that’s pretty extraordinary, considering it’s by our Immortal Bard. Along with Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, it’s now considered a “problem play”, which makes it sound like it’s going to be hard work to appreciate.

Amber James as CressidaBut that’s not the case at all. The excellent programme notes (the RSC always do great programmes but this one is outstanding) include extracts from the late John Barton’s old directorial notes from previous productions, and he points out that the strength of this play is in its sheer bloody-mindedness not to fall into any categories. The characters contradict themselves; the relationships between them change unexpectedly, with neither rhyme nor reason; it doesn’t succumb to any set pattern; in fact, it’s just like real life. So rather than trying to make it a one size fits all kind of play, celebrate the fact that it just goes its own way.

Andrew Langtree as Menelaus, Adjoa Andoh as Ulysses, Suzanne Bertish as Agamemnon, Jim Hooper as Nestor and Theo Ogundipe as AjaxGregory Doran’s new production does precisely that, although he has made one imposition on the play – to cast it 50:50 between men and women. As a result, we have a female Agamemnon, Ulysses, Aeneas, Calchas and Thersites, as well as women playing traditionally male servant roles. In one respect, it makes hardly any difference at all; a military woman is pretty much the same as a military man when uniformed and concentrating on strategies and tactics. In another respect, it does shed different light upon the play; it makes you see something familiar with new eyes, creating an excitement and a freshness that you might not otherwise have expected. This is one of many innovations in this production that works really well.

James Cooney as Patroclus, Andy Apollo as Achilles and Adjoa Andoh as UlyssesIt’s a rewarding, surprising play. It deals with themes of honour and betrayal, order and disorder, even celebrity versus mundanity. Achilles, the celebrity warrior, is sick of fighting and just wants to lounge about with his “masculine whore” Patroclus; his reputation sullied, not so much by his debatable sexuality as by what Agamemnon describes him, “in self-assumption greater than in the note of judgement”. It’s only when his Greek warrior colleagues play a trick on him, pretending not to notice him, that his vanity is offended; and not till Patroclus is killed that he is spurred into action.

Andy Apollo as Achilles and Daniel Hawksford as HectorThe Greeks and the Trojans are locked in a military and political impasse, causing them to bicker between themselves, but showing amity between the two parties. “This is the most despiteful-gentle greeting, the noblest-hateful love that e’er I heard of” says Paris, as Aeneas and Diomed confer amicably. Before Hector and Ajax can fight, they choose peace. “The obligation of our bloods forbids a gory emulation ‘twixt us twain”, says Hector; thus honour prevents him from surely killing Ajax. Yet, Achilles, with gross dishonour, sees Hector killed, not by his own hand in glorious war, but, ironically, outsourced to the Myrmidons while Hector is unarmed.

Amber James as Cressida and Gavin Fowler as TroilusPlonked in the middle of all this is the growing love between Trojan prince Troilus and Cressida, niece to Lord Pandarus, who serves as something of a Courtly Fool. He moves heaven and earth to get the two together, but after one night of connubial bliss, fate separates them; they both, unhappily, accept the fact that the politics of the state are bigger than both of them. They vow to stay true to each other, but that doesn’t last long; another excellent example of how the characters of this play don’t perform as you’d expect. The misleading title suggests that the love affair between the two will be the most important element of this play; but that’s simply not so.

Adjoa Andoh as Ulysses and Suzanne Bertish as AgamemnonThis is a lively, funny, and extremely watchable production with some very creative and entertaining highlights. Oliver Ford Davies’ Pandarus’ hilarious running commentary, explaining to Amber James’ Cressida the benefits (or otherwise) of each of the warriors who parade past them like some military Mr Universe pageant, works brilliantly well. His fussing around Troilus and Cressida’s morning after arrangements, checking for signs of consummation on the sheets, is also superbly done. Pitching Sheila Reid’s diminutive and wretched Thersites side by side with the tall and fit Achilles or Ajax also gives some great physical comedy moments. And I loved the play on words with “The Trojans’ trumpet”.

Sheila Reid as ThersitesAnd then there is the innovative involvement of having Dame Evelyn Glennie as the production composer. If you know Dame Evelyn’s work, it’ll come as no surprise that you can expect percussion – and a lot of it. That’s great for the war scenes, as the drums suggest marching armies and the metallic clashes represent sword on shield or armour against armour. Softer motifs also provide incidental music for some of the characters; again the programme notes tell us how she has orchestrated the two central lovers differently. And no opportunity is missed to fill in any details suggested by the text; when Pandarus is irritated by the sound of music, he’s not the only one. But it’s true, sometimes the excitement and creativity of the background music can overwhelm what’s happening on stage, and we found it difficult to make out some of Ms Reid’s bon mots as she observes the vanities of the warrior classes. That’s a shame, because she clearly gives it some suitably savage characterisation. As the other Fool in this play, the crude and visceral Thersites provides a lot of important context; but it’s no good if you can’t hear it.

Suzanne Bertish as AgamemnonThere are long sequences between the Greek warlords that are very wordy, particularly in the first half of the play. To make them more palatable, Gregory Doran has pantomimed-up the characters into a larger-than-life presence. Thus we have Suzanne Bertish’s Agamemnon, all swirling hair and fighting talk, rather like Anna Soubry MP on acid; Andrew Langtree’s Neanderthal Menelaus, constantly interrupted by Agamemnon to stop him from saying something foolish; Adjoa Andoh’s super-intelligent and manipulative Ulysses; Theo Ogundipe’s estuary Ajax, just about stringing a sentence together; Andy Apollo’s languid, too cool for school Achilles; and Jim Hooper’s dirty-old-man Nestor, taking a peck on the cheek with Cressida too far, to the disgusted, retching reaction of the audience. This outrageous, tongue-in-cheek approach to the characters oughtn’t to work; but it does, tremendously. These are all fantastic performances.

Theo Ogundipe as AjaxGavin Fowler gives his Troilus a nice mix of nobility and naivete; hopelessly hapless with his chat-up lines but dignified in his deference to the instructions of King Priam and valorous in battle. Amber James also invests Cressida with some gutsy personality, not backward in coming forward when Troilus is too tongue-tied to step up to the mark, and suitably flexible when she has to hold her own in the Greek camp.

Oliver Ford Davies as Pandarus, Daisy Badger as Helen and Geoffrey Lumb as ParisA couple of things puzzled me; I didn’t understand the significance of the weird collection of pots and pans and old bits of car that suspended from the ceiling, and shook clankingly every so often; and I wasn’t sure why Helen and Paris made their appearances from inside a pod that dangled down to earth, like a celestial conservatory. But John Barton’s notes had already guided me into not expecting to understand everything.

Andy Apollo as AchillesIt’s a thoroughly entertaining production, and if you haven’t seen Troilus and Cressida before, this is a delightfully accessible and stimulating experience, that I’d totally recommend. Terrific performances from Oliver Ford Davies, Suzanne Bertish, Theo Ogundipe and Adjoa Andoh make 3 hours 15 minutes go by remarkably quickly. At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 17th November – don’t miss it!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – The Chalk Garden, Chichester Festival Theatre, 9th June 2018

The Chalk GardenIt’s that time of year again when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Chichester. We have three weekends lined up for the summer months, and on our first, we were accompanied by our friends the Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. Lunch, natch, was in the Minerva Brasserie; it wouldn’t be the same without it. Normally we would see whatever was on offer in the Minerva Theatre as the matinee entertainment of the day, followed by the evening performance in the Festival Theatre. But this time, in something of a volte face, this time we did it the other way around.

Penelope Keith as Mrs St MaughamEnid Bagnold; that’s not a name you hear bandied about much these days. But she had quite a life, not only writing several books and plays including that old favourite, National Velvet, but she was a nurse in the First World War, married the chairman of Reuters, and one of her great-granddaughters is Political Wife and businesswoman Samantha Cameron. The Chalk Garden is her semi-autobiographical play, first produced in 1955. It was inspired by her Sussex garden at Rottingdean, in a house previously owned by the painter Burne-Jones. With post-war domestic arrangements in something of a turmoil, including coping with a three-year-old granddaughter, she advertised for a lady to come and help. No qualifications needed, she just knew she would find the right person when the right person came along. One day the family received a visit from an old friend, a judge; and the recently hired nanny became fascinated in him – but in a terrified way. This mysterious reaction gave Bagnold the idea of writing a play where a stranger with an unknown past comes into a domestic situation; and she wanted to find out all about what had happened in that stranger’s past. Hence Enid Bagnold is the real Mrs St Maugham, and Miss Madrigal is the fictional version of her unknown nanny.

Amanda Root as Miss MadrigalMrs St Maugham is woefully inadequate at keeping her granddaughter Laurel on the straight and narrow because she doesn’t want to – she wants her to be an expressive, free thinker; but we the audience can see she’s actually a rude, graceless, pain in the backside arsonist who needs some firmness in her upbringing. Mrs St Maugham has a garden where nothing grows; she has the desire for a beautiful garden but not the talent. Enter Miss Madrigal, of whom we know nothing, except that she can not only tend a chalk garden in a productive way but also develop the good qualities of the unruly child. But when she clearly recognises the Judge when he pops round for lunch, just what is the connection? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

Emma Curtis as Laurel and Matthew Cottle as MaitlandFrom today’s perspective, this might sound like a rather over-genteel, twee little play, all cucumber sandwiches and endearingly precocious children. Not a bit of it. This is a tough little play; gently lick the strawberries and cream off the surface of the plot and you’ll find rivets of steel holding it together. It’s written with all the hallmarks of a 1950s drawing room comedy but with added bite; many of the lines are not only acerbic, they have a thin veneer of violence to them. Bagnold clearly has a fascination for the criminal mind; and with some surprisingly muscular turns of phrase this is a play that delivers way more than it promises.

Oliver Ford Davies as the JudgeWhilst there’s a lot to discover beneath the surface of this play, there’s also the obvious attraction of what’s on the surface. Enter the auditorium of the Festival Theatre and you’ll find that designer Simon Higlett has truly gone to town to create an immaculate house and garden-type set. Pleasant but not luxurious furnishings; a distant peek into a workaday back garden; a busy corridor where visitors come and go; and of course, a superb recreation of the front part of the main garden. Personally, I like blank stages where you can let your imagination run riot; but, if you can’t have that, then go the complete opposite and create a meticulously imagined set where no attention to detail has been missed. Absolutely stunning.

Mrs St MaughamPenelope Keith is the obvious attraction about this production, and I’d be lying if I said her heading the cast didn’t play a significant part in wanting to see this show. I’d seen her eight times previously, over the years, most recently back in 2010 in The Rivals, and she never fails to delight. A part like Mrs St Maugham is bread-and-butter to Ms Keith but she tackles it full on with her beautiful enunciations and absolutely wicked comic timing. She brings Mrs St Maugham to life with complete effortlessness; which I’m sure takes a great effort.

Miss MadrigalThere are some terrific supporting performances too. Amanda Root is excellent as the deliberately unforthcoming Miss Madrigal; kind, assertive, practical and intriguing. Matthew Cottle also delivers a fine performance as the wheedling and put-upon servant Maitland; part of the family but never really quite “fully accepted” in matters of taste and grace. Oliver Ford Davies is very comfortable as the Judge; used to the finer things in life, including getting his own way, but very irked when having to defend himself or face up to his responsibilities. And there’s a nice performance from Emma Curtis as the demanding but controllable Laurel.

An excellent choice for a 50s revival, and definitely worth making the trip to the South Coast!

Production photos by Catherine Ashmore