The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Helen of Troy

Another review of a BBC Shakespeare from 2006. Not sure I agree with it now, having seen a great production at The Globe and thought about it a bit more.

Troilus and Cressida

Shakespeare is relevant. He has Modern Themes which are relevant to contemporary society. They are timeless and relevant and timelessly relevant.

Well, that's what English teachers claim, anyway. But, unfortunately, sometimes, Shakespeare is dated and obscure and has nothing much to do with modern life. I mean, when was the last time anyone had to 'Exit, Pursued by Bear'? Well, actually I had to do that at Stonewalls, bad example.

Troilus and Cressida, however, should've been due a revival. It is, after all, about a war being started over something which, in retrospect, all seems to have been a bit of a mistake - but it also makes the point that once you have committed to military action, to then acquiesce on the basis that it was all a bit of a mistake would show weakness and set a fatally dangerous precedent. There, that's relevant. That's a Modern Theme relevant to contemporary society. They could do it at the National and have King Priam dressed a bit like Tony Blairs do you see what we did there? Tony B Liar I call him.

The reason why this hasn't happened, though, is that for all its relevance, Troilus and Cressida is f*cking terrible.

It's bad. It's really bad. I was not prepared for how utterly staggeringly shite it would be.

Okay. What is wrong with it?

1) It is incredibly boring. Absolutely nothing of any significance happens during the first 3 acts. That's about 2 hours' worth of a great deal of bugger all. You have some Trojans standing around looking embarrassed going 'hmm, haa, this siege is a bit of a bind, isn't it?' You have some Greeks standing around also going 'hmm, haa, bit of a bind this siege, eh?' And that's it. I am not exaggerating. It's like one of the middle episodes of The Armageddon Factor.

2) To add insult to injury, the only thing of any import in those first 3 acts is the politicking of the Greeks in putting Ajax forward as their champion instead of Achilles. After we have had about an hour of this being bigged-up as a thing, this more-or-less gets completely forgotten - I think it's resolved in one line in act 5.

3) Talking of act 5 - after an incredibly drawn out first 3 hours, suddenly everything is resolved in a mad rush - off-stage and related by a third party. Path-etic.

4) I say 'resolved' but actually that isn't really the case. The play just sort of grinds to a halt. The love triangle of Troilus, Cressida and Diomede is just left hanging.

5) Speaking of which. The play is ostensibly about the love story of two Trojans, Troilus and Cressida - which, to be fair, is quite well done in the fourth act. Shakespeare can knock off romantic stuff in his sleep and he does the whole them-falling-in-love business very well. And when Cressida is sent to the Greeks, he does the whole two-lovers-ripped-asunder stuff very well too. But then - shite upon shite - it all falls apart. Cressida has barely been in the Greek camp five minutes before she's flirting with Diomede, Troilus eavesdrops and gets angry, and... well, that's pretty much it, really. Do they ever get back together? Do they ever even meet again? Does Troilus kill Diomede? What happens to any of them?

6) And the whole Cressida flirting with Diomede business is just balls. Balls. It's like, well, I know some people have a problem with Four Weddings & A Funeral and Notting Hill because the female lead character isn't very well drawn - in fact, in both films the female lead is just a plot device, fickle and shallow, switching on and off poor Hugh Grant's erection without rhyme or reason. I think that's a reasonable complaint and a flaw in both films. However, Troilus and Cressida does that to a massive degree. The one interesting idea in the story that could be explored is why Cressida betrays Troilus, and I would say that it is something that at least needs to be addressed, but this play just doesn't bother. It's an insult to our intelligence.

7) The endless repetition. Have any of you heard REDACTED’S play? It's a bit like that, there is the constant reiteration of the same point. The endless rephrasing of what is the same idea all over again. The constant, relentless repeatng of what has already been said in a slightly different way. It's as though Shakespeare is suffering from a bad attack of Wordcountitis. He seems, like Dame Sally Markham, to have been going 'How many pages?' Oh, the vast, drawn-out tracts of padding, of people telling each other stuff they already know! Act three in particular, Jesus, what a bore!

8) And in addition to that you have the similes. Now, Shakespeare is very good with these, and there is some beautiful stuff in the play, but please God let some of these similes end. Act three, scene III, and Ulysses decides to talk to Achilles about time. It's a bit like a hedge, he says. No, it's like a beach. No, a monster. No, a horse. No, a host. No, a type of cheese. OH JUST FOR F*CK'S SAKE GET ON WITH IT!

9) Worst of all you have the character of Thersites, here played by the Incredible Orlando. He is the 'fool' of the play, the one who is taking the piss out of all the soldiers and stuff... but he really is just f*cking annoying. It's like you have World War I going on in the trenches and then who should walk into no man's land but f*cking ALAN CARR making inane, predictable, bitchy comments in a grating cod-effeminate voice. That is what Thersites is like. Ther-shites I call him.

But on the plus side you have some swearing and some jokes about cocks and fannies. So on balance it's not altogether bad. But... and I say this objectively, with no hint of bias...

The Myth Makers is better.

Okay, so it's quite dramatic to have Achilles ambush Hector when he is unarmed and 'having a bit of a rest from the fighting' - but how much more marvellous to have him kill Hector whilst he is distracted by the arrival of a mysterious time-travelling Police Box on the fields of Ilium.

Incidentally the bit of the Television Companion quoted on the BBC website about The Myth Makers is completely wrong. In Troilus and Cressida Troilus is not killed by Achilles - in fact, they barely meet and Troilus is alive and well and moaning about the futility of war to anybody who’ll listen at the end of the play.

Anyway, to summarize - Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare on autopilot.

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