Bard on the Beach 

Troilus and Cressida

by William Shakespeare

Director David Mackay Costumes Mara Gottler Stage and Scenery Kevin McAllister Lighting Itai Erdal Sound Designers Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe

Dates 14 July - 21 September 2006 Venue Under the Tents in Vanier Park

Reviewer J H Stape

Like The Bard's current Winter's Tale, The History of Troilus and Cressida (c. 1602) is an invitation to explore the fringes of the Shakespearean repertoire. With its main plot borrowed from Chaucer, the play, set during the Trojan War is an odd mix of the bawdy and the tragic and offers swings in mood and style challenging to contemporary audiences, especially those not up on their Homer.

David Mackay's American Civil War setting of this production, with its crinolines, "bugger's grip" whiskers, and grey and blue uniforms, is pure eye-candy, nicely differentiating the Trojans (the South) from the Greeks (the North) and papering over some of the play's inherent flaws. But its downside is that the Trojans sport "y'all" Southern accents (quickly tiresome at the best of times) with varying success. This take on the play becomes more convincing as the evening draws on, but at the opening the language is very hard to get a handle on, and this is a play with rather less verbal magic than many in the canon.

The grand theme of love and war require no less than fourteen actors for twenty-one roles. Veteran Allan Gray handles no less than three (King Priam, Pandarus, and Calchas) offering his well-honed sense of stagecraft and character without stint, but flagging a bit in differentiating them since all are Trojans and require that Southern drawl. The meltingly handsome Torrance Coombs triumphs in his two roles (Achilles' catamite Patroclus and the Trojan Prince Paris) changing his body language and accents with ease and conveying a range of feeling and emotion, acting much with his eyes, each gesture crafted to convey personality.

Of the rest of the large male cast, Tom Pickett as Thersites turns in a show-stopping performance, equally good at broad humour and villainous sentiment. Fluent in diction, he is a wizard in investing a relatively minor role with great individuality. The Achilles of director David Mackay is stalwart and straightforward. The title-character is ably and convincingly handled by Chad Hershler, who knows how to pace himself, and conveys rage and tenderness with equal distinction.

The women characters (all Trojans and hence Southern belles) convey demureness and passion as required. The Cassandra of Anna Cummer (a Jodi Foster look alike and sound alike, wandering in from Silence of the Lambs) could do with a few less decibels and thereby gain pathos not just hysteria. Jennifer Lines's Cressida, deft and thoughtful, is a commanding and touching presence even if the higher reaches of the tragic remain elusive.

The blocking and pacing give the effect of a prolonged dance to this long play, and are often brilliant in filling the space meaningfully. The battle scene and set piece of the sword-fight convey sound and fury in whirlwind fashion.

The only real flaw in an otherwise compelling mounting is the soppy ending: Shakespeare ends with Pandarus' curse upon the audience -- and Allan Gray rose nobly to the occasion. But Mackay opts for prolonged sentimentality, and a maudlin, whiny song, drawing out the pathos to the cloying-point. Shakespeare knew what he wanted, and his chilling close would have been appropriate to Mackay's own point about what the poet Wilfred Owen called "the pity of war." Here, it is pity about the ending, which almost muffs a very fine evening.

© 2006 J H Stape