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Shakespeare 2008: Wars Without and Within

By November 15, 2008 No Comments

by Robert Hubbard

Shakespeare’s “difficult” plays fall into two categories: alluring messes and rigorous masterpieces. On the last day of May 2008, I visited the opposite ends of this continuum. I caught the matinee of Cheek by Jowl’s alluring deconstruction of Troilus and Cressida performed at the Barbican Theatre in London. Later that evening, I stood in the pit of Shakespeare’s Globe for a powerful if conservative production of King Lear. Exposed to over six nearly continuous hours of iambic pentameter, I limped back to my dwelling, thrilled and haunted by what can be done with these difficult plays.

One of London’s most innovative theatre companies, Cheek by Jowl revels in polishing-up Jacobean cast-offs. Their stark production of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling survives in memory as the single most exciting of the thirteen shows I witnessed on my previous visit to London in the summer of 2006.1 Likewise, the critics raved at Cheek by Jowl’s 2007 production of Cymbeline. That Troilus and Cressida compares favorably with these past successes speaks more to the creativity of director Declan Donnellan and his production team than to Shakespeare’s clunky and unclassifiable attempt to chronicle the Trojan War.

On this one, we cannot pretend the play’s the thing. True, among his messes, Shakespeare wrote few more dazzlingly flawed scripts. The sharp scenes, wit, and surprising insights lurking within the text may prove seductive; for example, the courtship between the title characters survives as some of the bard’s more tender and romantic exchanges. In spite of such moments of grace, the play stubbornly refuses comic/tragic classification (Joyce Carol Oates optimistically describes it as a “criticism of the pretensions of tragedy”) in favor of a kind of bawdy nihilism. Moreover, the unwieldy plot bucks between the ignoble actions of Troilus and the gallant pacifism of Hector without satisfactorily developing either. To overcome such obstacles, Donnellan crafts a production replete with vivid images and anachronistic flashes that prune, reinvent, and unlock the text from its prison of thematic disunity and structural anarchy.

As in past productions, Cheek by Jowl turns the liability of the barn-like Barbican Theatre into an asset by entirely closing off the vacuous auditorium. The audience sits onstage with the actors on two steeply raked seating units forming an alley configuration. Nick Ormerod’s design consists mostly of strips of fabric that run along the floor of the rectangular playing space, eventually ascending into the air in swooping lines. Painted to resemble parchment and frequently transformed in color and texture by Judith Greenwood’s theatrical lighting, these lanes of cloth subtly suggest tent cities outside of a Troy under siege.

This abstract setting provides Donnellan a wide-open canvas on which to play. Overlapping scenes between the Trojan and Grecian camps stand out among the many presentational staging choices; characters obliviously act through their sworn enemies. I also appreciate the way in which Donnellan consistently creates tensions through distance. Some of the most intimate and probing moments between love-struck Troilus and his confident lover, Cressida, occur as they stand at opposite ends of the rectangular stage. Other successful choices include a scene of cowardly vanity between Paris and Helen played comically as a fashion shoot, and the ingenious decision to play Thersites, the fool character, as a drag queen. In that role Richard Cant begins Act Two serenading the warriors with a torchy Marlene Dietrich shtick. This pitch-perfect choice playfully fuels the latent homoeroticism lurking under the surface of war.

The acting rises to support the strong direction, an especially impressive feat considering most of the actors play multiple roles. Within the ensemble, two stand out. Ryan Kiggell’s unexpected portrayal of Ulysses as a bookish, smarmy bureaucrat lifts a seemingly inconsequential role and makes skin crawl. And Marianne Oldham’s confident possession of Helen of Troy, dressed like debutant, leaves little doubt that this stunning woman could indeed launch a thousand ships.

Weaknesses in the production, though rare, come from the strengths. Donnellan coaches his actors to recite Shakespeare’s verse slowly and deliberately. The Globe TheatreWhile this makes the tangled text easier to appreciate, it also drags the pace in the feistier sequences. Likewise, several design anachronisms breathe life into the production, but I am not sure if we are supposed to giggle when Trojan soldiers’ armor makes them look like Darth Vader’s storm-troopers in cricket gear.

On the opposite end of Shakespeare’s difficult-play continuum sits the imposing King Lear. Because of its complexity, nuance, and range, this universal meditation on aging rightly frightens the tights off even the best theatre producers. We may admire King Learor Hamlet, but visionary production concepts cannot mask outmatched actors in these title roles. If you don’t have a Lear, please don’t doLear.

Thankfully, Shakespeare’s Globe finds its Lear. As the center of the production, the barrel-chested David Calder seems born to play the Anglo King. Calder’s voice booms with cantankerous authority, matching and surpassing decibels with the thunder sheet in the “cataracts and hurricanoes” scene. More impressive, he projects through the Globe’s distraction-prone outdoor setting even during the play’s more tender moments. On his knees, in a Dover prison cell, Calder’s Lear shares his intimate reunion with his only faithful daughter, Cordelia. He sweetly whispers private pearls into her ear, and I heard every word.

The rest of the cast is solid if uneven. Daniel Hawksford plays an enjoyable rogue as the bastard, Edmund. As Edgar, Trystan Gravelle memorably mines the role for unexpected physical humor, especially when disguised as Poor Tom. To their credit, Sally Bretton as Goneril and Kellie Bright as Regan initially imbue humanity into their villainesses, leaving them somewhere to go. If the fool in Troilus and Cressidasurpasses expectations, this pivotal role in King Lear disappoints. Danny Lee Wynter’s fool fails to project past the pit, depriving much of the audience of his witty and insightful quips.

Consistent with Shakespeare’s Globe setting, director Dominic Dromgoole guides a traditional production that mingles the medieval setting with Renaissance sensibilities. Jonathan Fensom’s handsome costumes, especially his rugged leather vests, texture the stage with medieval authenticity. Live music, played on Elizabeth instruments and beautifully sung by Pamela Hay, lends ambiance and helpfully covers transitions. The brief appearance of a cut-covered chorus of nearly naked pagans stands out as one of the few unexpected directing/design choices. Are these the freaky beings responsible for Stonehenge? Justification for this strong choice arrives when Edgar disguises himself as one of these self-mutilated druid-like savages. In short, Edgar’s “Poor Tom” finds a place from which to come.

On a more general note, Dromgoole deserves credit for the overall clarity of his production. King Lear survives as one of Shakespeare’s most complicated plots. For example, two different characters, Kent and Edgar, don disguises in multiple scenes, sometimes at the same time. That this Lear unfolds clearly and elegantly is a credit to Dromgoole’s careful storytelling.

Sleep does not come after my day of difficult plays. Well past midnight, I toss in my narrow bed–restless, in need of closure, wondering how I might process this experience with my students in class the next morning. Through the darkness of my room, both productions vibrate, resonating themes to me and to each other. Troilus and Cressida‘s cynicism toward blind patriotism pushes my increasingly anti-administration buttons. Stoked by ingenious anachronisms, the play sardonically shows how a war waged from vanity, hubris, and choice results in an intractable quagmire. Oh, that we had but listened. But before I become too angry or haughty, King Lear wisely reminds how little we actually master our broken natures. Left to our own devices, our judgments fail and our kingdoms fissure. Lear teaches that, in the end, we can only pray for the grace to redeem which humility painfully offers.

Shakespeare’s difficult plays–whether flawed yet fertile like Troilus and Cressida, or arduous yet glorious like King Lear–demand gifted artists to make them sing. How appropriate that the city which hosted Shakespeare’s career as a dramatist remains a setting where his less playable plays still thrill–a place where poetry, passion, and truth reverberate in the darkness of quiet rooms.


1 Every other year, I co-teach a summer study-abroad course in Great Britain entitled “Exploring British Culture through Art and Theatre.” Among other benefits, this course allows me to attend over a dozen plays in London, sometimes two in one day.
Robert Hubbard is associate professor of theatre and speech at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.
Robert J. Hubbard

Robert J. Hubbard

Robert Hubbard teaches Theater at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.