Theatre Review: Troilus & Cressida lacking a spark (at the Depot Theatre until 19th May)

Despite being penned by arguably the world’s greatest playwright, the convoluted storyline of Troilus & Cressida can prove a significant challenge for even the best theatre practitioners. Secret House have tackled this problem play with their usual gusto, gaining many ticks from this reviewer, but unfortunately the source material proves a difficult sell and, as a result, this show falls a little short of the company’s usual heights.

Set amid the Trojan wars, the Troilus and Cressida of the title are perhaps the least well known of the characters in this epic. Troilus is brother to Paris (you know, the one who kidnapped Helena and set a thousand Greek ships chasing after them). Their father Priam, brother Hector and general Aeneas are all focused on the defence of the city against the Greek hordes. Troilus, on the other hand, is fighting another battle – for the heart of Cressida.

However, their love story is mostly overshadowed by the more familiar tale of Hector’s challenge to the Greeks to present their best warrior for a duel that will settle the war. Enter the Greek leaders – Ulysses, Agamemnon, Nestor and Menelaus – who are having problems with their hero Achilles, and opt to send their second-best fighter to face Hector. There’s a lot of negotiating going on, both in relation to the war and the desires of the titular characters, and there’re are many little subplots that Shakespeare feels the need to explore, all of which make for a long and confusing tale.

Full disclosure, this is the first time I’ve seen Troilus & Cressida performed on stage. So, my reading of this production was somewhat distracted my having to come to grips with a play that doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy, tragedy, history or somewhere in-between.

It’s a flaw that Director, Sean O’Riordan, acknowledges in his program notes, observing that, “despite all the reading one may do on this play you are left in the end to try to come up with a rationale of your own to guide you through”. He has done exceptionally well wrangling the text into a coherent story and has added many clues to help the audience come to the intended reading (ie: that our relationships with others are among the few parts of our lives over which we have control).

One such clue is the staging technique of setting the actors at some distance from one another in a linear or triangular formation during almost all the scenes. The approach makes full use of the unique Depot Theatre stage, which is reminiscent of a diamond with the audience seated on two sides and the main entrances and exits made through the top and bottom points. In this production, O’Riordan has positioned the character that is seemingly most changed by each scene at the front point, between the seats, with the scenic ‘antagonists’ in the centre of the stage. In other scenes, actors leave the stage and join the audience to watch the action from above, talking down to their fellow players or throwing asides conspiratorially to the audience members seated next to them.

The aim of this directorial decision, I believe, is to draw attention to the moments when the characters actually do embrace – be it as friends, family or lovers – highlighting that this is what’s important in life, and the rest is mere words. Unfortunately, while it may achieve its desired intention, it also makes for some very long passages of difficult to understand dialogue. Shakespeare is not easy to decipher at the best of times, and it’s made even harder when a) the play does not clearly identify itself as comedy or tragedy, and b) when the actors are left without the use of close-up interaction and stage crosses to help drive home meaning.

Having not seen the character of Troilus portrayed on stage before, I have to admit I’d read him as a bit of a ‘Stage-5 Clinger’, reminiscent of Jared from The Bachelor and Bachelor in Paradise. Matthew Bartlett plays him more as a cheeky, albeit slightly awkward, nearly-hero. His performance is sound but his intentions are not always clear.

The usually sublime Jane Angharad was slightly below her best in the role of Cressida. The character is a tricky one, especially given her odd actions in the second act, and although very comfortable on stage, no matter the role, Angharad’s performance doesn’t seem to shed any light on Cressida’s motivations.

Someone who does seem to have a firm grasp on his character’s intentions, confused and slimy as they may be, is Charles Upton as Pandarus. He is a delight to watch and is a standout in this production.

Shan-Ree Tan (Ulysses) also delivers a strong performance. He has clearly spent time unpacking the text and his interpretation is nuanced and confident. Unfortunately, he spends a lot of his scenes with only one half of his face shown to the audience (due to the afore mentioned geometric staging) which diminishes the impact of his performance.

Similarly limited by the staging is Alec Ebert, as Hector. Sword fights aside, his scenes are very regularly played back-to-audience which means we’re never entirely convinced of his mood or reaction.

Interestingly, many of the other strong male ‘hero’ roles are played by women. The thinking behind this is not immediately clear, but it does add more balance to the cast which would otherwise be very heavily weighted with men. Hearing Margarita Gershkovich’s Achilles and Emma White’s Patroclus describe a lack of enthusiasm for battle as “womanly” is a quirky juxtaposition but they, and Grace Naoum as Ajax, try a little too hard to walk and gesture like men. A strong but still feminine take on the characters may have been more interesting.

Bringing the colour and movement to the otherwise stilted staging is Danen Young, as Thersites. He is entertaining and works very, very hard to bring a comedic element to the show but it is a battle he sadly loses, largely because no-one else is at his level of intensity. His performance is at a 15 when it perhaps should be brought down to around a 10. But he gets full marks for throwing himself whole-heartedly at the role.

Thanks to the efforts of Scottie Witts (Fight Choreographer) and Virginia Ferris (Movement) the sword-play and fight/dance sequences are excellent. In particular (and apologies for the spoiler) Achilles’ final encounter with Hector. The performers handle the props masterfully and using dance to invoke the feeling of a crowded battlefield is a great directorial choice, especially on a small stage.

As usual, Secret House have transformed the Depot Theatre stage with simple but supremely effective set design. Maya Keys has dressed the space in layers of pale, floor-to-ceiling drapes reminiscent of Grecian tents. It gives the actors plenty of entrances and exits to work with (which could have been used even more frequently) and perfectly evokes a sense of time and place. The floor has been covered in a layer of heavy sand, and atop this are three sandstone blocks of varying size to provide seating when required. The sand is difficult to move through and means the actors passages across the stage appear a bit clunky at times, but overall the set design is strong.

Less effective are the costumes, also designed by Keys, which are a hodge-podge of modern military-esque garments patched together to resemble ancient styles. Ordinarily, contrasting modern costume against period scenery would not be a problem, but there’s just too many styles going on in the outfits to be truly effective. And while Cressida’s red gown is lovely, it is too far removed from the monochrome of the rest of the cast. It elevates her stature above the rest of Trojans (including her lover, Troilus), while the higher-status characters of Hector, Agamemnon and even Paris for whom all this fuss has been made, tend to blend into the chorus.

O’Riordan further strives to underline the idea that this is a play with themes that translate well into the modern era by the use of a techno soundtrack throughout the production. Does it work? Um, not sure. But it’s entertaining and certainly lends an epic-ness to the show.

Secret House are great at taking Shakespeare’s problematic plays and transforming them into highly watchable events. Unfortunately for Secret House, Troilus & Cressida proves a little too much of a problem and this production sits just below their usual heights.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Troilus & Cressida is playing at the Depot Theatre in Marrickville until 19th May. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Friday 11th May.