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Stunning start to Shakespeare's difficult play

Troilus and Cressida, RSC Stratford, to Nov 17. It's known as one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays, and with justification. The Troilus and Cressida plot is convoluted and bewildering - part love story, part comedy, part historical, with a bit of tragedy thrown in. It's set during the Trojan wars, and it opens as Greek forces are besieging Troy. Led by Agamemnon, the Greeks are on a quest to reclaim the beautiful Helen who has been abducted by Paris, a prince of Troy. Paris's brother, meanwhile, is fighting another battle – for the heart of Cressida, and the nervous young lovers are brought together by Cressida’s uncle Pandarus (Oliver Ford Davies) who acts as a go-between.

Of course the love story goes far from smoothly, but this element of the play is mostly overshadowed by the efforts of Agamemnon and Priam, the King of Troy, to break the stalemate which the war has become by having the Trojan hero Hector face the Greeks' best warrior in a deciding showdown. But who among the Greeks will take up the challenge?

This production, directed by Gregory Doran, sets out to be strikingly different, and succeeds, certainly in the first half.

The music is stunning - explosive percussions composed by the great Evelyn Glennie - as are the Mad Max-style costumes and effects. They make for a genuinely startling and exciting start.

And one of the major themes - the hollowness of the great heroes of mythology - is explored with some genuinely funny performances. Achilles (Andy Apollo) is preening, indolent and selfish, interested only in his boyfriend Patroclus, and Ajax (Theo Ogundipe) is a swaggering buffoon. Paris (Geoffrey Lumb), having caused all the trouble, has little to offer his city.

Perhaps to undercut our strutting heroes still further, Ulysses is played by a woman, Adjoa Andoh, and a strong performance it is too (Agamemnon, an ineffective ditherer, is also played by a woman, Suzanne Bertish).

Ironically, it's when the fighting starts in the second half that the inventiveness of the production tails off slightly and the play starts to flag. And one annoying problem throughout was the sound quality: When the actors faced away from the audience they became difficult to hear, and many of the lines of Thersites (Sheila Reid) were lost to the circle.

Tickets from:

Picture by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

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