Troilus & Cressida
Venue 1, Monday 19 February
Dir. Lewis Harding and Chris Cannell
If one were to order the plays of Shakespeare into categories, one could speak of tragedies, comedies, histories… and Troilus & Cressida. The text is inherently problematic, pulling in so many directions that it is almost as difficult to follow as The Phantom Menace. It is not even particularly clear who the primary protagonists are – the title roles all but vanish two thirds of the way through. Simultaneously a bawdy comedy and gloomy tragedy, Troilus & Cressida juggles the events of Homer’s Iliad alongside the doomed love affair between Priam’s youngest son, Troilus, and Cressida, daughter of Calchas, a traitorous Trojan priest.
Directors Lewis Harding and Chris Cannell deserve full credit for pulling off the logistical nightmare of managing a cast that leans dangerously close to thirty-strong. The bustling crowd scenes and tableaus are certainly a spectacle: well-ordered and frequently a feast for the eyes. Such ambition, though, is a double-edged sword: the show is so ‘big’ that it ended up feeling fat and often sluggish. Particularly with a run time – interval inclusive – of three hours.
Energy is the operative word here. No student show can rehearse all day every day – the ideal solution to tighten everything up – making it essential for the cast to give their all consistently. Several remarkable examples of this include the ever-watchable Andrew Illsley as the maniacal fool, bounding about the stage like a crazed monkey. Tom Vanson and William Brady, too, were on fire, bringing utter clarity and energy to their characters. For every performance that excelled, however, there was another that fell flat, leading to a great deal of upstaging and scenes that were a strain on the attention.
Not helping this were volume and diction issues. Shakespeare can be difficult enough to keep track of for a modern audience at the best of times, but if a significant chunk of dialogue cannot be heard it becomes nigh-on impenetrable.
When the show is good, though, it is very good. The casting of women for Achilles and Patroclus added greater depth of meaning to the power dynamic with Hector, and the cast do not shy away from the raunchier scenes. The production is definitely most comfortable during the grand set-pieces and more comedic moments, but shrinks back into its shell somewhat for the tragedy. There was simply not enough emotion on show to tug at the heartstrings, rendering the finale – despite its powerful imagery – somewhat cold.
It was refreshing to see the Venue 1 stage used to such great effect: the space was explored fully with good consideration paid to levels. What started as a clear aesthetic, however, swiftly became convoluted, with the stage being cluttered with suits, classical Greek dress and WWI military uniform. Although the purpose of the gun-armed soldiers becomes evident, there is still a dissonance between them and the distinctly modern suits, not to mention the classical costumes.
Ambition is a great thing. Troilus & Cressida, hopefully, will open up St Andrews to the possibility of more ‘spectacle’ theatre with people thinking on a large scale. The devil, though, is in the detail, and this show is guilty of losing itself in the ‘wow’, leaving the power of the play itself behind.