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As memorable a Shakespeare staging as I’ve ever seen. RSC’s Troilus and Cressida 1985

October 6, 2015
Troilus and Cressida - 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company Royal Shakespeare Theatre Directed by Howard Davies Designed by Ralph Koltai

Troilus and Cressida – 1985
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Directed by Howard Davies
Designed by Ralph Koltai

Young, very young, very very young me went to see this.  Shakespeare’s Trojan War anti-epic in nineteenth-century dress at the Barbican Theatre.

This was the very wonderful cast list…

Alan Rickman               Achilles

Alexander Wilson         Aeneas

Joseph O’Conor           Agamemnon

Clive Russell                 Ajax

Roger Hyams               Alexander/Myrmidon

Janet Dale                     Andromache

Richard Conway          Calchas

Mary Jo Randle           Cassandra

Juliet Stevenson          Cressida

Bruce Alexander          Diomedes

David Burke                  Hector

Lindsay Duncan           Helen

Paul Spence                   Helenus

Brian Horstead             Menelaus

Mark Dignam                Nestor

Mike Murray                  Myrmidon

Clive Merrison               Pandarus

Sean Baker                      Paris

Christopher Wright      Myrmidon

Hilton McRae                Patroclus

Colin Douglas                Priam

Gerard Logan                 Prologue

Alun Armstrong             Thersites

Anton Lesser                  Troilus

Russell Boulter               Troilus’ servant

Andrew Yeats                  Trojan gent.

Geraldine Wright           Trojan lady.

Peter Jeffrey                    Ulysses

 

Rereading Troilus and Cressida recently it seems to me an odd duck indeed.  Structurally confused and in places decidedly uninspiring.  When I saw it staged in 1985 though, it felt like one of the most extraordinary plays ever conceived however.

To begin with, it is funny.  In performance it is very very funny, when done right.  Alun Armstrong was a hypnotically po faced comic genius in the role of the railing Thersites, the bitterest of all Shakespeare’s bitter clowns.  I can still hear Alun Armstrong describing Menelaus in my head.

To an ass, were
nothing: he is both ass and ox. To an ox, were nothing: he is both
ox and ass. To be a dog, a mule, a cat, a fitchew, a toad, a
lizard, an owl, a put-tock, or a herring without a roe, I would
not care; but to be Menelaus, I would conspire against destiny.
Ask me not what I would be, if I were not Thersites; for I care
not to be the louse of a lazar, so I were not Menelaus.

Yet Greeks and Trojans alike deserve Thersites.  Homer’s cast list is reduced to a pack of violent imbeciles and slow-burning soulless manipulators, such as Ulysses as played by the incomparably oily and dangerous Peter Jeffrey.

There is scope for Troilus and Cressida to restage (or anticipate) Romeo and Juliet with star-crossed lovers paying the price of the internecine feuds of others.  But no.  Instead of lovers who pay for the price of their love’s purity with their own lives, Troilus and Cressida survive (the play at least) but are morally degraded along with everyone else.  There is no real explanation for Cressida’s infidelity other than the vague flavour of the times, the “way of the world” and Troilus loses all dignity with the shock of his discovery.  Let’s face it – sexual jealousy is rarely productive of tragic composure.

I remember being very struck by Alan Rickman’s Achilles, though it’s just as well that way back when – I had absolutely no idea who Alan Rickman was.  If I had watched this Alan Rickman, knowing Alan Rickman as we all do, I might have thought he was lurching into self-parody.  Nobody does sneery villainy like Alan Rickman (except for Paul Darrow), and I remember being horrified by the callous way in which his orders his Myrmidons to cut down the (relatively) heroic Hector.  Because I didn’t (yet) know how sneery Alan Rickman can be, I didn’t see Alan Rickman.  I just saw Achilles.

But I’m not sure that I’ve ever been as impressed by anyone on a stage as by Clive Merrison as Pandarus.  Pandarus is not considered one of the great Shakespearean roles.  But Merrison gave it a swagger and an energy and a pathos and a sorrow that haunted me that night and oddly enough haunts me still.  Pandarus is the character who most believes in the possibility of love, who most wants love to happen.  He’s Friar Lawrence and Nurse rolled into one.  He’s a go between – the prototypical eponymous “pandar” yet he has this strange sense of beauty and opportunity.  When Clive Merrison’s Pandarus bequeaths us his diseases at the end, it’s like a final knife blow to the heart, or to the very idea of having a heart.

Yeah, I have never seen more powerful and affecting Shakespearean acting than from Clive Merrison at the RSC in 1985.

You see, this staging, thirty years ago, offered something so richly nasty, so glitteringly unfair, so hypnotically bleak, that it lives with me today.  It plays in my head. Still.

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