Troilus and Cressida

Sitting down to a blockbuster evening of kultur – as with last week’s three-and-a-quarter-hour-long production of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” (Radio 3, March 6th) – we are bound to feel dutiful and meritorious. E’en before the first ‘whither’ or ‘wherefore’ has been uttered, you feel you’ve earned yourself the equivalent in compensating trash – say, four weeks “Dallas” watching.

Those grudging feelings about Shakespeare are usually swept smartly into out critical recesses, yet they shouldn’t be. Shakespeare is hard for modern audiences, radio Shakespeare doubly so. Should Radio 3, with sterling Reithiness, still be feeding it to us? After David Spenser’s outstanding production, the only conclusion is yes.

But this isn’t to underestimate the formidable problems of translating it from stage to studio. One difficulty is the language itself. On stage you can always illustrate an archaism visually or gesturally. On radio you’re stuck with the words themselves – and “Troilus and Cressida” is clogged with incomprehensible phrases denoting sexual disgust, and sexual punning. Which of us, for example, knows that Neapolitan bone-ache is syphilis, or that the galléd goose of Winchester is an angry prostitute? (Only those of us with the Signet Classic Shakespeare.) A radio audience, therefore, can aspire at best to semi-comprehension.

And “Troilus and Cressida” is the most problematic of Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays. Taking the classical story of the Trojan War, it links the public and private domains – the Greek victory in killing Hector, a Greek wooing Cressida to betray Troilus – in a theme about inconstancy. But to achieve it, the characters themselves are inconsistent, Troilus passing from a billing-and-cooing lovesick youth to a rip-roaring warrior, Cressida from true love to true love with someone else, in a matter of dramatic minutes.

Spencer’s production made sense of all this in the most felicitous way. As well as the humour, he brought out the full astringency and cynicism of the play – the putrefaction of every heroic ideal, even using the cry of a vulture to punctuate the decline. It sounded good, aided by Christos Pittas’ music, compelling Mediterranean melodies in lieu of the usual stage classical tinkles. And while much of the play is still, perforce, dense bombast, Spencer (who, as a Wunderkind actor, played Troilus in BBC radio’s last production, 19 years ago) netted a formidable cast to animate it.

Maureen O’Brien beautifully played Cressida as a squeaky sex kitten – a wanton from the start, with come-hitherish inflections. Michael Pennington’s superb Troilus began with conventional almost droll poetic hyperbole, and grew into a fully-fledged tragic hero. His speech after witnessing Cressida’s betrayal was masterly: when he wailed ‘O Cressid! O false Cressid!’ his whole being was in danger of splintering. Norman Rodway’s steely, sinewy Ulysses dominated the play: a brilliant impersonation of a cold Puppeteer, relishing his rhetoric, ironic and manipulative. And David Buck, in a virtuoso performance (just hovering on overkill) played Ajax as a lumpish buffoon, an Arthur Mullard type of thickie.

But the revelation of the production was Alan Howard – an obvious for Achilles or Ulysses or even Hector – but who, in a daring piece of casting, played the Elizabethan Fool role of Thersites. Though he started out with insufficient scurrility – sounding less like a social irritant than a camp hairdresser – he grew into a grotesquely scabrous thing, a leering commentator on sexual and political satiety. His couplet on Cressida’s cupidity veered from a castrato cackle to a reverberating bass growl (‘whore’) – dehumanising and spine chilling. To those who say that radio Shakespeare is another example of radio elitism, it must be said that even if such productions glean a meagre audience – 100,000 or less – this is larger than most major theatrical productions, and includes those who don’t have access to the theatre

Anna Karpf

The Listener, 13.3.80

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