Before anything else, one has to offer all praises to the cast of this production for their valour, professionalism and stubbornness. Outdoor performances always face the gauntlet of the weather, and the forecast for opening night was not promising from anyone’s point of view. Still, a performance of Troilus and Cressida is a rare enough event that a faint bit of rain is worth bearing, even if one idiotically neglects to bring an umbrella. But by the start of the second half, it was not a faint bit of rain we were getting. Rather, it was the beginning of the most torrential downpour Toronto had seen all year, a storm that turned the streets to riverbeds and left one fearing drowning should one fall on one’s face. Yet despite this, until the rain grew so heavy that it was clear the performance could not continue, the actors showed no sign of the fact that they were in grave danger of contracting pneumonia, not to mention the danger of broken bones attendant on running, dancing, and leaping about barefoot on the uneven keel of a sodden grassy hill. It is a pity that so few of us in the audience remained long enough to offer them quite as rousing an ovation as this am-dram crew deserved, but then we were all in a bit of a hurry to get to shelter. Those of us who did stay at least got the chance to experience the pathetic fallacy in action, as thunder rumbled and lightning added dramatic illumination to Troilus and Cressida’s forced parting.
So kudos all around to the actors and crew – and audience. How was the production? Judging by both that night and a later performance, something more of a mixed bag.
There are a number of challenges facing the UC Follies, some inherent in the play and others self-inflicted. Troilus and Cressida is not the easiest of Shakespeare’s works, either in the knottiness of its language or its dramatic construction, which among other things makes it difficult for an audience to empathise with any of the characters. (Whether we should is another question altogether.) It has been suggested that it was written for private performance rather than for the Globe, and this does not seem unlikely: the complexity of grammar and thought seems overwrought for bellowing out to the groundlings. This brings out the first and major problem with this production: the location. Along with the weather, outdoor productions have to take into account the ordinary noises that surround them, and while it is understandable that the UC Follies feels they have to perform in front of University College, it is a pity they could not have taken advantage of one of the other, more concealed quads offered by the University of Toronto. Surrounded by roads including one of the city’s major arteries, with the sports groups in the other direction and, on the Friday night at least the music from the bar, the audience has to strain to hear the actors over the non-diegetic cocktail – and sometimes even when the surroundings were silent. Taken together, all these factors lead to an evening that is not entirely gripping. An audience is easily distracted outdoors, and special care has to be taken to keep them in their seats.
Another, much more minor, issue is the choice of gender-blind casting. Explained partly by the post-apocalyptic setting and partly by the reality that there tends to be a paucity of male actors in amateur dramatics, it is a fascinating exercise to apply to this so strongly gendered play. Where the issue arises is in the decision to cast blindly and then adapt the text to the gender of the actor, which leads to some somewhat jarring phrasings, such as ‘She’s an excellent man’. Likewise, a female Pandarus loses half the interest of the role, because the meddling matchmaker is such a feminine stereotype that Sarah Cody could come to seem little more than a sexist caricature in the role.
Mostly, however, the gender-blindness made for some fascinating destabilisations. The Greeks are all men, with the exception of Ulysses, while only Priam, Paris and Aeneas of the Trojans are male. Romantic love – between Troilus and Cressida, Hector and Andromache, Achilles and Patroclus – is same-gender while mixed-sex relationships – Paris and Helen, and any of the Greeks with Cressida – is purely physical, often brutally so. This is not to say that the play is a glorification of homosexuality: the whole concept of homo/hetero is irrelevant, and the self-satisfied fatuousness of Achilles and Patroclus was no more attractive than the self-involvement of Paris and Helen. The openness of Achilles and Patroclus’s relationship, with the latter identified as the former’s lover in the programme, just in case their wandering about half-naked in togas, kissing and massaging didn’t make it clear enough, did however take all the sting out of Thersites calling Patroclus a ‘masculine whore’. If we had been given some sense that Patroclus was selling his favours in some way, it might have made sense; as it was, the insult’s bite was lost – one of many small details to fall by the wayside.
The cluttered wayside should not suggest that this is a poor production. The post-apocalyptic setting is well-realised, at times pushing the limits of absurdity – Achilles fighting with a pair of toilet plungers is likely the most eye-popping example, bringing out in full force the play’s argument that there is nothing glorious in war. The Greeks especially manage to create the feeling of an anarchic motorcycle gang. The final battle, played at the top of the hill out of range of the light and marvellously chaotic, at first chortle-inducing in its soundtrack of plastic against plastic but growing more serious. The (unintentional?) hilarity is entirely gone by the time a weaponless Achilles advances on Hector, casting his shadow over her as she is surrounded by the entire cast and literally torn to pieces. (It might have been better to avoid having Andromache gather the pieces up in her arms and carry them out, however.) The crassness of the play is well-tended to: with Paris forcing Helen to the ground and practically fornicating with her before our eyes as Pandarus asks for their favour, or Cressida allowing Diomedes into her tent for a brief, violent copulation, Thersites’s view that ‘All is lechery’ is well-documented. But there is more to it than that. While the cynic’s commentary reduced Cressida to a whore, it is clear from her face that Cressida (Cheyenne Scott) is perfectly aware that she has indeed become one, but also that she has done so because she had no other option. It was a moment of pathos in a heartless play.
Extra pathos is added by the extension of Cassandra’s role. Forming a double chorus with the wonderfully sour-voiced Thersites (Alyson Doyle), Cassandra (a mad-haired Audrey Amar) witnesses the entirety of the play, opening it by running across the hill calling for her sister Hector and later on occasionally repeating key lines. Her observing lends extra strength to her premonitions and fears, which are so strong that she physically attacks Helen, and contrasts with Thersites’s vicious deflations by her clear awareness of what death and fighting truly mean. There are only two deaths in Troilus and Cressida, Patroclus and Hector, and both come at the end. Until that point, much of the Trojan War can seem but a game, like Ajax and Hector’s wrestling match, but Cassandra knows how real it actually is, and foresees the moment when the clashing of plastic swords will cease to be funny. Her message is most clearly heard at the end, when she is carried off by the Greeks, and closes the play with a final off-stage call of ‘Cry, Trojans, cry’ turning into a scream.
As the titular lovers, Elizabeth Stuart-Morris and Cheyenne Scott manage to produce a fine impersonation of young love, despite something of a lack of chemistry. Scott’s high point is in the overhearing scene with Diomedes. Her admission of love to Troilus is particularly awkward, sounding extremely rehearsed, but that need not imply it was not genuine. As Troilus, Stuart-Morris plays the hesitant youth extremely well, though she is less believable as a soldier. The meeting between the two is played for laughs, with bashful failures at kissing as the chortling Pandarus looks on. Cressida’s love grows as she laughs at Troilus’s sheer over-the-topness. The exchange of oaths is made in a whirl of high spirits as the two chase each other across the grass. It is extremely charming, and leaves the curious impression that the oaths should not be taken too seriously. Their rush off to bed before Pandarus had even ceased speaking is wonderful in its adolescent impatience. The forced parting is well-played as well, the opportunity for acting subtlety being seized by Scott, who makes it clear that it was over the moment Troilus suggested a lack of trust in her. Her disappointment makes her later betrayal, however, unwillingly made, not unexpected.
Sarah Cody’s Pandarus is a nicely drawn figure, smoking and sipping from a hip flask, and absolutely incorrigible no matter how often she is physically shunted aside when she tries to interfere too much. Her illness at the end is little more than a coughing hack, but she is given the opportunity to give one of the best explanations of subtext I have ever seen. For those in the know, it is perfectly clear that Pandarus is rotted by venereal disease and that this is what he wishes on the audience; but the language is no longer clear. As Pandarus begins her epilogue, the Greek men come up behind her, clearly intent on seizing and raping her as they had already done to Cassandra. As they advance, she turns, lies on the ground and exposes herself to them – and their looks of horror as they peer at her crotch and rapid retreat thereafter tell us better than any words just what Pandarus suffered from.
With her grating voice, Alyson Doyle occasionally comes close to stealing the show as she watches, crouched like an evil gnome in the shadows. For sheer hilarity, it is a draw between Achilles’s posing and Thersites’s slouching, ass-scratching impersonation of Ajax which is the high point of the evening, for all that the impersonation bears little resemblance to the actual Ajax (Joel Chico). One must also mention Mike Wisniowski’s marvellously fatuous Achilles, parading half-naked and pausing in various athletic poses whenever he wishes to impress someone, showing off his muscles at any opportunity. It is quite clear that despite his strong relationship with Patroclus, he is up for it with anyone. Certainly he attempts to seduce Ulysses, and his observation of Hector is not merely a butcher’s eye. As Diomedes, Ali Malik-Noor is even less subtle: challenged by Troilus to treat Cressida well, he begins to grope her instead, and takes a long look at her rear end as she walks out of the room. He is possibly the most darkly-drawn character, simmering with rage and barely capable of courtesy.
All things considered, though uneven, this Troilus and Cressida is a good production. I did not regret having to make a second visit to take it in properly. It was, however, a great relief that the weather cooperated on the Friday, rather than beginning to rain every time Helen came on stage.