The RSC has once again taken on Shakespeare’s tragedy, Troilus and Cressida. A story of manipulation, betrayal, love and sacrifice set against a backdrop of the infamous Trojan War. Set 7 years into the war, Troilus (a prince of Troy) and Cressida (a Greek woman who had defected to the Trojans) fall in love but are forced not to repeat the same mistakes Paris and Helen have committed as the war comes to a dramatic end.
The set, costume and prop design for this play was spectacular, the Mad Max-style surroundings and dress made the story timeless. The use of Greek-style armour combined with the use of motorcycles, guns and shipping container “tents” made the play modern yet as distant as Homers past. Not to mention, the music for this production made it impossible for an individual not to feel the emotions the play was trying to evoke. The use of motorcycle engines in the place of horseshoes, makes the audience feel as if the upcoming battle will be earth shaking and the use fo harsher instruments for the entrance of the Greeks, compared to the more classic and smooth instrument introductions of the Trojans works perfectly to set the scene.

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That said, Gavin Fowler (Troilus) and Amber James (Cressida) were merely adequate in their roles. Fowler was sometimes guilty of overacting, forcing the individual out of the Mad Max-like Greek word they had been sucked into and back into the theatre. Amber was emotive, yet seemed to lack true chemistry regarding her interaction with the other actors on stage until later in the play. While possibly a creative decision to demonstrate how Cressida’s walls were broken down as she grew to love Troilus, it seemed that James went too far at times, forcing a complete disconnect from those on stage with her. Not until the second act was she entirely believable in her performance. As James grew more believable as Cressida, the love story between the two namesakes of the play never quite seemed as honest as the audience could have wished.

For me, the stand out performer in this piece was Adjoa Andoh. The task of playing Ulysses is a difficult one for any seasoned actor, let alone when this is the first time a woman has portrayed such an iconic Greek man. Andoh never once allowed any questions of her ability to play Ulysses. Every time she took to the stage she commanded your attention. Her ability to act manipulative was powerful enough to for the audience to forget that she was indeed meant to be shaping the story and the catalyst for the death of Hector as well as the exasperation of Troilus and Cressida’s tragedy.

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Ulysses was not the only typically powerful male character to be transformed from a man to woman. Iconic male Trojan heroes such as Aeneas and powerfully recognisable men such as Agamemnon were turned into women. Director, Doran, boasted a 50/50 gender split. Doran said that the qualities of the characters, such as a manipulative character and a firm but fretful leader, should not be gender specific. He added that in splitting the cast equally, the play was modernised and thus had more contemporary relevance today. Agamemnon, for example, played by a woman (Suzanne Bertish) in this production faces the difficulties of navigating a tumultuous political time of uncertainty, continually having to worry about being stabbed in the back. We only need to look at the news today to see a very similar story being played out with our own Prime Minister.

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While these actresses manage to make you forget their gender and merely see the power emanating from their performance, there is a startling difference between how we readily accept these masculine women. Ulysses with her bald head and powerful stance, and Agamemnon with her larger than life, crazy, grey hair compared to the physically caged “fair” Helen of Troy and (eventually caged) Cressida. While Cressida begins as a sassy and strong woman, not to be outwitted by a man, Helen starts in a spherical cage situated in the sky, surrounded by wind chimes, the most aesthetically pleasing of prisons. Helen never leaves her cage, except for one scene in which she is mute, a silent observer of a conversation about herself. Those women who do not “transcend” to masculinity are the “fair” women, traded as currency, who are solely the spoils of war. There seems to be relevance in the idea that a woman can only be powerful is she denies her femininity. Modern issues of gender and men were also seen as Patroclus is mocked as the effeminate lover of Achilles compared to the masculine nature of the women playing princes. This goes to show how being feminine can be considered degrading, either resulting in mockery or imprisonment, but for a woman to become masculine, she is praised as strong and powerful.

The contemporary relevance and inclusivity did not stop at an equal gender stance on the play. Charlotte Arrowsmith (Cassandra), is the first deaf actress to be cast in an RSC production. Cassandra, as a cursed outcast never to be heard or listened being played by a deaf woman holds a striking comment on contemporary society’s treatment of the deaf today. Arrowsmith said that Cassandra represents how the deaf community feel on a daily basis. Her compelling and heart-wrenching performance was emotive and the pain undeniable.

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This production of Troilus and Cressida manages to make a Shakespearian adaptation of Homer, modern and relevant to today. While the love story itself takes a back seat in the play the issues of uncertain political times, gender and the treatment of people with disabilities are all tackled in a beautifully resonant and contemporary manner.

This production was broadcast live to Lancaster at The Dukes. For more of their upcoming Stage on Screen events, like The Madness of King George III and The Nutcracker, head to dukes-lancaster.org