First transmitted 7th November 1981
Suzanne Burden and Anton Lesser find true love never runs too smoothly - particularly when Charles Gray tries to help you.
Cast: Anton Lesser (Troilus), Suzanne Burden (Cressida), Charles Gray (Pandarus), Benjamin Whitrow (Ulysses), Vernon Dobtcheff (Agamemnon), Geoffrey Chater (Nestor), John Shrapnel (Hector), Kenneth Haigh (Achilles), Anthony Pedley (Menelaus), Jack Birkett (Thersites), Esmond Knight (Priam), Tony Steedman (Aeneas), Paul Moriarty (Diomedes), Elayne Sharling (Cassandra), David Firth (Paris), Ann Pennington (Helen), Bernard Brown (Menelaus), Merelina Kendall (Andromache)Director: Jonathan Miller
Like Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s most rarely performed works. Again it’s not hard to see why as soon as you sit down and watch it: this is that rarest of things, a Shakespearean satire, a parody of Homer, in which each of the heroes is deconstructed as something considerably more flawed and human. It’s also parodies Homer’s poetry, meaning each character talks at very great length to get across their point – none more so than Ulysses, who barely delivers a line shorter than a page.
It’s also a play that lacks dramatic thrust. Troilus and Cressida themselves are undefined characters (Cressida in particular is a very difficult part, essentially acting as the plot demands rather than as a human being). This explains why the showpiece roles are often seen as Pandarus and Thersites – two cynical commentators and observers, who have the best lines and soliloquies. Who wouldn’t want to play (or indeed watch) that, rather than the cryptic love story at the (nominal) heart of the story? Especially since the two lovers don’t even meet until the play has reached the half way point.
So this play is a deconstruction of the mythic ideal, and this is the tone Miller’s production works to capture. Both the Greek camp and Troy are run-own, shabby affairs, populated by characters who have been going over the same conversations over and over again for the last seven years of war. In the Greek camp, soldiers laze around in dirty tents, playing cards and being entertained by prostitutes (visually Miller was inspired by the look of M*A*S*H*). The Greek leaders laze on beds drinking, barely going through the motions. Garrulous characters, particularly Ulysses and Nestor, seize the conversation in tired silences. Between councils, Achilles and others laze with their lovers or gossip with servants. The Greek costumes are as shabby, brown and dirty as the rest of the camp, and drink is clearly in plentiful supply (and a regular prop).
It’s little different in Troy. The city is a construct of interior courtyards and rising staircases, all of it rough, chipped wood, smeared colours and flaking paintwork suggesting years of undersupply. The inhabitants, like the Greeks, continue the same debates – in a central scene, the Trojan princes debate the futility of continuing the war, Troilus, Hector and Paris trot out their arguments with a similar weary familiarity, going over familiar viewpoints before committing to carry on once again. Even the interjections of Cassandra are met with an over-familiar and tired boredom. The costumes chosen for the Trojan characters have a grander, old-fashioned feel to them, reflecting the more noble ideals and romantic views of the majority of the Trojan characters, in contrast to the more realpolitik Greeks.
The loss of idealism is the central thrust of Miller’s production. John Shrapnel’s scene-stealing performance as a quick-tempered, impulsive but essentially decent and honourable Hector is the tragic centre. War to him is close to a game with fixed rules, reflected in his behaviour when visiting the Greek camp: as soon as the challenge with Ajax is finished, he reflects old-fashioned nobility and good nature, like Prince Charles visiting a school, rather than a man in the middle of a war to the death. This contrasts with Kenneth Haigh’s cruel, arrogant and bullying Achilles, more interested in burnishing his reputation and lazing with Patroclus, completely aware combat has no rules. Much of the production builds towards the final meeting between these two characters in battle. Romanticism dies with Hector, who is beaten to death by soldiers, while Achilles watches dispassionately, before walking over to push Hector’s bloody remains into the mud with his boot.
The end impact of that murder is seen in Troy, which in the final scene is a darkened city, with wounded soldiers standing at every point, a delirious Pandarus wandering past the grieving family of Hector. Troilus – at the start an idealistic man – rants and raves in furious defiance against the Greeks. The mood carries across from the battlefield – a blasted wasteland with a bloody sun hanging in the sky. Troy has become a fatalistic city, where hope and dreams have been abandoned in an acceptance of destruction. It’s a doom-laden ending to the play, Miller suggesting that war is now on a slope descending towards Hell itself, where inglorious death awaits the characters.
Alongside this nihilistic view of the Trojan war, a contrast is made with the romance between Troilus and Cressida. Both the lovers are young and naive, with a rather innocent outlook on the world. In their first scene together, both Lesser and Burden are chaste and timid, unsure of how to act upon an obvious attraction between them – they virtually need Pandarus to push them together. What Miller suggests is that their naivety leads to them interpreting this first burst of passion – an early crush effectively – as a passion for the ages. Their uncertainty is still there: even when waking from a night together they are physically hesitant with each other. When separated they respond as if trying to meet expectations: Cressida clings to Troilus in dramatic outbursts of tears and wailing; Troilus behaves as the strong comforter but stridently demands again and again that she swear undying devotion. It’s all a bit much for something that is really little more than a one-night stand.
This goes some way towards one of the modern problems with the play: every male character seems to instinctively suspect Cressida is a woman of loose morals and inconstancy. By making her early dalliance with Troilus something youthful, built on instinct rather than reasoned or mature reflection, her later alliance with Diomedes then makes some sense. The reception Cressida receives from the Greeks when arriving – basically a lusty cheering from horny men who haven’t seen their wives for a long time (Diomedes even has to beat some of them away) – suggests she is aware finding a protector in this den of violent, sex-starved men might not be bad idea. Burden suggests in her performance that Cressida may regret the loss of Troilus (and her innocence) but she is savvy enough to seduce Diomedes to secure her future. Just as with the war, this is a loss of innocence.
Suzanne Burden does her best with a tricky role here: from her first scene with Pandarus, she clearly has an intense interest in sex and a flirtatious nature, but (similar to Troilus) does not seem to have developed an emotional maturity to sit alongside it. When confronted with her man, she is tentative and quiet throughout. There is a suggestion in Burden’s performance that she is less drawn towards him than he is to her, as if she is willing to explore romance and sexuality with him, but perhaps does not see him as her permanent partner. It’s a nice image of how Juliet might have turned out if she had survived.
Opposite her, Anton Lesser’s excellent performance as Troilus is a dynamic force of youthful naivety, sharing Hector’s view of war as a game, and almost childlike in his understanding of love. His romanticism and idolisation of Cressida creates a woman who cannot fail but disappoint him. As mentioned, his response on separation is to be the strong man, but he matches this with youthful insecurity in her faithfulness. When circumstances force Cressida away from him, he lacks the emotional intelligence or maturity to understand the reasons for her actions, and redirects the near teenage anger and rage into an obsession with the martial future of Troy, taking on Hector’s mantle: but as a sullen and disillusioned young man rather than a moderate idealist. Similar to Burden, it makes the part almost a companion piece to Romeo – only a Romeo rejected by Juliet who buries himself in Montague-Capulet brawls.
At the centre of the web of sex and manipulation is Charles Gray’s campy, creepy and (inevitably – it is Charles Gray!) toadlike Pandarus is the selfish spider. Gray’s Pandarus sees ensnaring Troilus in his family as his meal-ticket and, as such, is willing to spin any story necessary to successfully pimp out Cressida to him. He has wit and charm, but is entirely self-focused (clearly shown in the final shots as a disease-raddled Pandarus walks blindly past the funeral of Hector, absorbed with his own self-inflicted tragedy). When bringing the lovers together he virtually pushes them together to get the result he wants, frustratedly crying “have you not done talking?” It’s another decent performance from Gray, though I could have done with a performance which is slightly less broad and allowed us to see a bit more of Pandarus’ intelligence as well as his greed.
In the Greek camp, there is a batch of strong performances, with Geoffrey Chater the stand-out as a hilarious Nestor, playing him as a pompous, preening old man, nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is, constantly agreeing shamelessly with the most persuasive figure (usually Ulysses), chuckling pointedly at obscure jokes to highlight his intelligence and, in one great moment, prattling at such great length to a visiting Hector that Ulysses has to physically interject to restrain him (Chater remains at the edge of the frame, constantly trying to retake the conversational impetus). Benjamin Whitrow’s Ulysses is a good companion performance to this – smooth, proud, calculating, a natural observer, with Whitrow suggesting that his self interest has kept him from the ennui and boredom of the rest of the men (and also allowed him to take the driving seat in discussions).
Vernon Dobtchett is a solid presence as Agamemnon, displaying just the right mixture of pride and terminal lack of charisma. Kenneth Haigh’s self-absorbed, cruel Achilles is a soulless contrast to Hector. Regular performer Anthony Pedley gives another lovely performance as a preening and dim Ajax, lead meekly by the last person he spoke to. Jack Birkett gives a screechy, camp performance as a dress-laden Thersites that really captures his bitterness and cynicism, but perhaps misses out on making clear Thersites’ role in the play of providing a commentary on events.
Miller uses many of his usual tricks in the production – long takes abound – and uses direct address to the camera at several key-moments, in particular with Thersites. During Cressida’s ‘betrayal’ in A5 S1 he successfully manages to introduce multiple perspectives swiftly: Cressida’s, Troilus/Ulysses’ and Thersites’, managing to demonstrate the unclear images that each has of the other (Cressida cannot see the others, Troilus cannot hear everything that is said, Thersites can see more but not hear). In a particularly good touch, Helen is introduced silently in A2 S2, making the lords more comfortable as they argue against her presence in Troy. The depiction of the griminess and dirt of war is very well done, with marching troops superimposed over shots of the Greek lords, and the battlefield a muddy plain under a dying sun (although the gruesome shot of Hector’s caved in skull is a perhaps a little too much).
It’s a well worked and intelligent, if overlong piece of television that, rather like the play, wears its brain on its sleeve and at times lacks a little heart. There is wit and humanity there but much of it serves as secondary to the dissection of notions of honour and romance. So it’s just as well that it excels at doing this!
The play itself is hard going in places, but this is a production packed with good ideas that serves as a companion piece to Romeo and Juliet: in that play innocence and naivety are celebrated (though lead to tragedy and the deaths of both); here it is shown to be misguided and mistaken and is eventually refocused to anger, cynicism and resentment. Miller’s production, particularly in A5, really captures the feeling of a descent to despair. With several impressive performances – in particular Chater, Lesser and Shrapnel – this is as good a version as any to get a sense of this most difficult of plays.
NEXT TIME: Helen Mirren is besotted with a donkey-headed Brian Glover in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Will this unfailing crowd pleaser of a comedy manage to raise a chuckle in a series that has bummed out on comedy so far?