To paraphrase Shaw, in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare came as close to the 20th Century as the 17th Century would let him. To paraphrase me, he also came as close to the Athens of Pericles as the 1600’s would let him, because Troilus has all the bite, rage and scabrous humor of a lost play by Euripides. It’s talky, it’s satirical, its world view is a bad marriage between bitter and despairing, it’s an ongoing essay on the effects of Time on everything from vows to reputations, and it’s a bleak look at the stupidity of honor, like Shakespeare got angry drunk one night and decided to wipe people’s faces with the truth behind Falstaff’s honor speech.
None of which are lost in this production, which is (a) the fifth time I’ve seen this play performed, and (b) the best out of the five. So if you’ve never seen Troilus and Cressida, go see this one. And if you have seen Troilus and Cressida, definitely go see this one because it’s probably better than any of the other versions you’ve ever seen.
Why? Because for a play that’s got more tonal shifts than Schoenberg, this production manages to find a way to embrace them all in a military bear-hug, thanks in no small part to a stellar ensemble and smart, assured direction by Daniel Sullivan, who establishes a consistent tone that honors all the wounding bitterness of this play while showing you how the wound got there.
That’s always been the problem for me with Troilus. Either you make it overtly Messagey (like the Wooster Group’s Cry Trojans), or you ride the satire over the top until it crashes and burns (like the 1995 Delacorte version which was given low marks and no wings by director Mark Wing-Davey), or you go for stratospheric camp, like the 1973 David Schweizer-directed version at the Public (with a preening Christopher Walken as Achilles, a dead horse that William Hickey’s Pandarus kept kicking during the Helen scene, and Joe Papp chewing out the director during intermission the night I saw it. Good times.). Only rarely, as in Bill Alexander’s Folger production back in ’92, do you get a solid production that creates a stage on which satire can co-exist with something that resembles reality. That production did it by setting everything in ancient Troy; this one does it by setting everything in a modern Middle East war zone.
They also have one other thing in common: a Hector who is a flawed rock of integrity. In the Folger production it was Daniel Southern, and he was like a male version of Desdemona: you knew that he was doomed the minute he opened his mouth to talk about honor. In this production, it’s Bill Heck, who has the kind of physicality and demeanor that demands respect, the kind of intelligence that sees the problem and knows how to solve it, and the kind of religious adherence to vows and words of honor that compounds the problem and ultimately kills him.
I’ve been thinking about this production a lot since I saw it, and I can’t think of anything it did wrong. Corey Stoll’s Ulysses is dressed in a suit like a Halliburton adviser, and he is totally the manipulative dick that Attic Greek tragedy made out of Homer’s hero, the voice of reason who literally takes reason to a homicidal level. John Glover’s Pandarus is sublime and delightful. Max Casella’s Thersites threatens to steal the show, but the one who really does that is Alex Breaux as Ajax, a dim-witted Bro to whom self-knowledge is as incomprehensible as particle physics. (Although the real star the night I saw it was the understudy for Achilles, KeiLyn Durrel Jones, who went on for the injured David Harbour, and. Was. Amazing.)
Something else done right: the women. Sullivan says more in two scenes about women as property in a male-dominated world than Phyllida Lloyd did in all of Shrew. Helen of Troy is a weary captive with a half-filled goblet of wine that never seems to get any emptier no matter how much she drinks, and she’s drinking for a reason, because she’s a trophy, a trophy who's ghosted by two men whenever she moves, men who shadow her and block her from going anywhere Paris doesn’t want her to go. (Paris is such a tool; for this one scene alone, you love to hate him.) And when Cressida is in the Greek camp, and Diomedes is talking to her, it’s done while a bunch of soldiers are watching them, ready and willing to move in on Cressida if and when she refuses Diomedes’ protection. And she knows it. So what else can she do but break her vow to Troilus, when the alternative is gang rape? The play is full of moments like this, stinging and sharply-observed.
As for the title characters, Andrew Burnap and Ismenia Mendes are a matched set of awkward, vulnerable youngsters whom you want to see get together. Mendes in particular is awkward in a modern way that fits the setting of the production—the words rush out of her, spoken not in verse but in bursts, like the artillery fire that keeps hammering away at the walls of Troy. But because both of them are real and likeable, it really hurts when they’re forced by circumstance to learn the hard way that whenever you make a vow in this play, the gods laugh at you, and then make you either revoke that vow and lose your honor, or keep it and lose your life.
And not just the gods but Time, who is the presiding deity of this script. Perhaps because of the clarity of the way it’s presented, this is the first production where I actually felt like I was watching everything through a temporal kaleidoscope. Troilus keeps getting described as a second Hector; so that means, once he and Cressida get married, that he will treat her the way Hector treats Andromache, like her fears are womanish and weak. When Troilus loses Cressida, he rages like Achilles when he’s lost Patriclus, and I think: ah, this is what Menelaus must have been like seven years ago, when he first lost Helen. And now look at him: the war has beaten all the anger out of him, and every line he says in this play (and he has, what, maybe 10 lines in all?) is a cracked window opening up onto a dour and defeated soul. This is what Troilus will be in seven years.
Seriously: everyone in this play is a temporal echo of everyone else, from Old Man Nestor who remembers fighting with everybody’s grandfather, to Cassandra who remembers things that haven’t happened yet. Only Ulysses, asshole that he is, is untouched by Time; and whatever he’s going to do when this war is over, you can bet it won’t involve trying to get home. This guy is too much in love with running things to come up with the Trojan Horse idea. If anything, this particular Ulysses would think of it and then deliberately forget it, just to keep the war going on forever.
Two final notes. It feels a lot shorter than its three hours, which is something I never thought I would say about a production of this play (the 1995 version was as interminable as current David Mamet).
And how weird is it that, when you look at the last three plays Sullivan has directed for Shakespeare in the Park, it’s the two weirdos which he’s done proud (Cymbeline and Troilus) while it’s the old warhorse that was totally out of his wheelhouse (Lear).
Let's hear it for weirdos. Go see this.