Brighton Year-Round 2020
Directed by Joanna Rosenfeld again with a crisply-observed 20 minute interval. Designed by Conor Baum with the support of Gladrags. Production Management Joanna Rosenfeld, with team Saskia Monteiro, Faith McNeill, Tabitha Fawcett Fry. Drums led off by Conor Baum pace the performance. Next and final performance Saturday September 12th at 16.30.
‘It’s a wild card’ announces director Joanna Rosenfeld of Troilus and Cressida. And a play I secretly hoped this company would bring.
The One Fell Swoop Project’s Zoom Shakespeare four weeks ago on August 8th zoomed out on to St Ann’s Wells Sensory Garden for the first time since its lockdown zooms. In a word, Unlocked. Joanna Rosenfeld and Conor Baum alternate as directors and actors in a ‘micro-festival’, this being fifth of six outdoor productions of Shakespeare, the audience strictly distanced and with all amenities on hand.
Actors have 24 hours to con parts meet up and read through. Everything’s fluid, the spirit of OFS with its spontaneous leaps into abysms of inspiration is preserved. The Zoom traversal of all Shakespeare and apochrypha might hopefully recommence in the autumn.
Though modestly priced it’s also a charity event. There is though no gala about it. This is first-rate outdoor Shakespeare.
Troilus and Cressida from 1601-02 is possibly Shakespeare’s sourest drama and there’s no record of it having been performed in his lifetime or long after. That’s not unique: that other sour work Timon of Athens might not have been either, and there’s others. Bottom drawer plays? Plays that have no bottom, endlessly fascinate, tend to get read more than acted.
But that’s a huge mistake. The first of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays, Troilus and Cressida’s also deeply modern in a way only the younger dramatist Thomas Middleton suggests. He was Shakespeare’s collaborator on Timon, and posthumous meddler with others.
It’s a sumptuous production, pared down. Hence the windmills of last week are pennants now, flying over the pavilion, or red streamers tipping spears of Achilles’ followers the Myrmidons. There’s an attempt at identifying Greeks with red warpaint applied across warriors faces founded with white: Man U. There’s some magnificence of costume, exceptional in Jules Craig’s helmeted Hector. The helmet‘s in fact hair. Drums led off by Conor Baum bar and abrade the performance.
Pandarus connives to bring an amorous but tongue-tied couple together: Troilus (an ardent then ferociously downright Ben Baeza), one of King Priam’s youngest sons, and Pandarus’ niece the young widow Cressida (Katey Ann Fraser, who really suggests Cressida’s hesitation, desire then later conflict). That cellophane distance-kissing roll is whipped out by the stage manager just in time, now part of the performance ritual. Pandarus urges them to bed but the morning after’s upset by local difficulty. We’ve had seven years of the ten-year Trojan war. Rosenfeld points out that even illiterate groundlings would know story and characters intimately.
After a gravelly intro from Ross Gurney-Randall as Prologue ending in the surly ‘tis but the chance of war’ it’s revealed Trojan Cressida’s father Calchas (Rosanna Bini) has gone over to the Greeks. In exchange for a Greek taken prisoner by the Trojans – Antenor, a wily Deborah Kearne – Bini’s time-serving codger suggests that daughter be swapped; essentially as a sex toy to ingratiate him with the Greeks.
That another Priam son should prove both broker and bearer of tidings allows Shakespeare to strike a Roman thought: Aeneas, later founder of Rome, in Lexi Pickett’s sprightly, sensitive first role, embodies discretion with firm action. The only Trojan with a future.
Pandarus is silver-clad elegant Sharon Drain exhibiting wonderful stillness then bustle. Drain’s only fault is being too often turned from us so some words are hooded. Drain unlike some gender-fluid cast members has retained feminine attire which makes sense: Pandarus’ gender is easily slipped. There’s little time to alter ‘uncle’ to ‘auntie’ in the text though in these productions it has been done. Drain’s strong on Pandarus’ sense of ingratitude.
Meanwhile wily Greek Ulysses (wearily authoritative Seth Morgan) argues with brother Kings Agamemnon (Gurney-Randall again) and Menelaus (Kearne’s other role, wincing with injury) over the latter’s wife Helen (Pickett again). Her abduction by another Priam son, Paris encouraged by the goddess Venus is what started the war; ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’. Morgan’s set speech here starts others. His later signature-speech: ‘Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,/Wherein he puts alms for oblivion’ to sulky Achilles is carried with point and smothered scorn.
Paris is Bini again in her main role, here twitched like a bird on a string. It’s all a bit Harry-and-Meg via racist tabloids. Helen and Paris after seven years are touchingly still at it like sparrows, caring nothing for the devastation wrought and suggesting Troilism and Cressida sandwiches quite publicly. Pickett’s imperious-slutty and slithering-down Helen would make a worthier gift than poor Cressida. Shakespeare’s quite clear on the absurdity that would end wars, save lives and lovers, all for the sake of ‘dignities’.
Priam’s eldest son noble warrior Hector –superbly poised Jules Craig, her helm her hair – seems to argue for Helen’s return but collapses ‘to keep Helen still’ because they’d lose face. Gurney-Randall anchors the debate as Priam too, making this a grand conference showing mere expedience in high words. Hector later chases after a suit of gold armour to find a putrid corpse within (wisely cut here).
No-one but cynics escape being other than they seem: Ulysses and the maimed Greek spitter-on Thersites – Duncan Henderson, a singular crab-like move on splints doubling as a chair, and rancid-voiced to a slew of magnificence. Pickett as the fighting Bastard of Priam gives Henderson his best feed of all: ‘I love bastards’ inspiring Pickett’s contemptuous ‘I’ll not fight thee’.
There’s fine work too from Chris Gates as Diomedes, the sneering inheritor of Cressida after she’s been kissed by the Greek kings and passed about to him, whom he treats as a trophy. Gates hinting brutish danger (‘I’ll use her as she’s valued’ back to Troilus) and Fraser bend badinage more dangerously; and more unpleasantly as Cressida realizes there’s no option but to please the man she’s been thrown to, even to surrendering her love token, a sleeve. ‘Farewell Troilus, one eye looks yet on thee’ unwittingly speaking directly to Troilus, next to Ulysses out of sight in a feasting truce.
There is then the warpainted apparition of three northern football supporters. Each skirls Yorkshire, mostly keeping it up. Sam Cartwright’s a fine Shakespearean; challenging as brutish Ajax, brain on the tip of something. Cartwright who normally purrs iambics murders glottals here, but we get the point. It’s a fine quick study in boneheaded bellicosity.
Bellicosity’s certainly what we get in Conor Baum’s Achilles. Baum’s ideal casting for this role in portraying warrior turned sulk. With a fine Richard II and Richard III behind him this year (the latter twice, starring here just two weeks ago) Achilles’ petulance is a given. Baum’s also blessed with a clarion voice on occasion and my companion whispered Hotspur which fits exactly. Something in the role needs adjusting. What brings Baum to his full stature is the great moment of this production: the battle.
It’s Ben Darlington, Achilles’ lover Patroclus though, who commands from first slouch to reported death. In his stillness, his watchfulness, even pre-set, Darlington again and again sounds heroic notes tempered by concern for the man he loves. Each surly answer he gives the Greek commanders in search of Achilles is telling. This is pedigree acting, one of the two finest performances here.
The other is Craig’s Hector. Again Craig positions herself, turns slowly so everyone hears what’s said, and does it hypnotically whether in conference, in standing ground to Achilles’ taunts, or warding off Christine Kempell’s powerful mobile and vocal sister Cassandra wailing unheeded prophesies (Kempell also plays cowled ancient Nestor in the conferences) or wife Andromache (Bini again, more vivid – hair strewn wild in grief – than as Paris; here her speeches rend).
Craig’s final dignified freeze as Achilles ignobly orders her murder by Myrmidons like a mafia don, is chilling. Rosenfeld’s fight sequences are superb: each blow tells from a distanced mime, and the final co-ordinated smashing-down of spears on Hector is darkly thrilling. Rosenfeld’s pyramid shapes for Richard III were superb. These are even finer.
Alissandra Henderson develops in each production; here apart from Priam’s son Helenus in three other spear-carrying roles showing alert company competence.
There’s great scenes. Henderson’s Thersites gleefully looking on as Morgan’s resonant grave Ulysses brings Baeza’s almost uncontrolled Troilus to sight of Gates’ sexually harassing Diomedes and Fraser’s Cressida; each shift you see her lose more ground snatching at dignity. Each pitched at different corners – Henderson by the pavilion crouching on his crutch, Baeza restrained by Morgan, Gates and Fraser advancing and retreating in a ballet of bitter rapprochement. And Baeza’s release into war where ‘hope of revenge shall hide our inward woe’ rings an epitaph as he plunges to destruction, then or later.
It’s that action with tableaux described severally above, that really crowns this production. Everyone’s at their greatest pitch, voices ring where some were occasionally muffled, commanding ones streak through the alarums like a fluorescent marker in the dusk.
Darlington, Craig, Gurney-Randall and Henderson nail their roles in a way this strange play makes the more remarkable. Baum Kempell and Morgan are often commanding and latterly magnificent, as is Baeza’s wounded soul and Fraser in her equivocal pain, both wincingly affecting. Pickett’s chameleon-like voicing and Gates’ menace are pointillist and pithy. Cartwright brilliantly bulks his Ajax: it’s tricky to get bonehead and leathery sawn-off eloquence at once; Cartwright’s solution leaves us in no doubt who Ajax is. Drain is so quicksilver-voiced I mourn not hearing everything as traffic dents voices. Bini explodes as Andromache and I wish there was more of this; whilst Kearne and Alissandra Henderson etch in smaller roles with dispatch and energy.
Maybe what the director chooses to do with the very end might tell us why a 1602 director might have felt the same way. Rosenfeld realizing how much of this strange refractive work an audience could take decides to cut the end of Pandarus’ epilogue. It now ends on a remorseful, rather than sardonic note where ‘some galled goose of Winchester might hiss’ (prostitutes working for the Bishop of Winchester) and a rancorous final couplet. ‘Till then, I’ll seek about for eases/And at that time, bequeath you my diseases.’ You won’t appreciate that on a Saturday night.
Pandarus’ final lines come hard after the preceding Twelfth Night, where ‘we’ll strive to please you every day’ becomes literally ‘I’ll strive to curse you every day.’ Speculation’s fruitless. Troilus and Cressida cusps a major plague outbreak sharing such imagery with Measure for Measure that came straight after. We’re privileged to see this rarely-performed work moulded by OFS. A play for our times.