Troilus and Cressida at RSC, review: more jaw-jaw than war-war in this epic tragicomedy

Amber James and Gavin Fowler star in Troilus and Cressida - Helen Maybanks
Amber James and Gavin Fowler star in Troilus and Cressida - Helen Maybanks

Did the Greeks, aiming to topple the towers of Ilium, pour more valiant effort into the Trojan War than the RSC does now in taking us into the arrhythmic heart of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy of love sundered and virtue curdled?

To lay siege to this epic, patience-testing portrait of those two sides, who have reached stalemate after seven years of sparring over the abducted Helen, director Gregory Doran has marshalled a mighty company of 24. For the first time, it's a 50/50 gender-split (the play contains only four female characters), though the immediate effect is to diminish the necessary surfeit of testosterone.

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie contributes nerve-jangling clanging, while lighting designer Matt Daw bathes the main-stage in the kind of dystopian hazy glow that might settle after a nuclear winter. Designer Niki Turner has been watching Mad Max. There’s a punkish, leather-clad thing going on with the costumes, warriors on motor bikes too; a mass of metallic detritus hangs on high.

It looks great but the dramatic challenge – barely winnable – is that there’s more jaw-jaw than war-war. Beefcake muscularity is eventually – and exhilaratingly – let loose, in the fight sequences of the second half; but it’s a long wait of fits and starts, with the central story of fledgling passion, separation and betrayal, so exquisitely caught by Chaucer, squished and almost squandered. It’s as if Shakespeare got bogged down. Whenever we hear from Gavin Fowler’s initially wide-eyed, comically insecure Troilus – and particularly in the scene when he exchanges those falsely assured vows of devotion with Amber James’s wary Cressida – the stage seems to light up, catching a glint of Romeo and Juliet.

The poetry is rationed though – and you may find the blithe interjections of Cressida’s pruriently proactive uncle Pandarus and the cynical commentary of the “scurrilous” Thersites a trial: the stooped Oliver Ford Davies’s clerical air feels incongruous in the former role, while Sheila Reid is too frail of voice, with shades of wee Jimmy Krankie, to lend much clout to the latter. Like the Greeks, then, back in the day, it’s a case of so near, yet so far; no defeat, but no victory.

Until Nov 17. Tickets: 01789 403493; 

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