Troilus and Cressida is often regarded as Shakespeare’s great anti-war play, but the label doesn’t quite stick. One after another, ancient heroes and the cause for which they fight are mercilessly exposed as stupid and futile. Helen of Troy seems perfectly and stupidly happy with her equally twitter-pated kidnapper Paris; Achilles is psychotic, the Greek leadership fools and knaves. But the mood of this piece is ultimately more tragic than ironic or satirical, and its ending almost unbearably bleak in a way that seems to extend beyond hatred of war to embrace a full-scale nihilism. Troilus is the young tragic hero who discovers with horror that the world he inhabits has completely fallen apart around him and that a desperate, impotent rage is the only response he can haltingly express. Despite the wide-range of characters in the play, it is Troilus who emerges as the play’s conscience, and when he leaves the stage, he has given himself up to his newly-discovered reality of meaningless violence.
This recording is rough going. You become eager for the saving detachment of black comedy, so much a staple of the modern anti-war polemic – but this is denied. Thersites, the sarcastic commentator on events, is played by Peter Woodthorpe not with comic exuberance, but with an seething, sinister edge that explodes frequently into anger. It’s a marvelously effective take on the role by the 27 year old actor (just two years after his professional debut in the London premier of Waiting for Godot) and it helps makes the play hellishly dark. Effective also is Anthony White as Troilus, sincere and believable as Cressida’s suitor and tragic in his humiliation and despair. Donald Beves as Pandarus is particularly good in his farewell speech, agonized and self-pitying. Irene Worth as Cressida is never quite at ease in the role, unless you’re ready to accept Cressida as an aging, sharp-tongued debutante whose flirting is brittle and unconvincing. But maybe that’s ok for a production so relentlessly downbeat and depressing.
Troilus and Cressida with Anthony White, Irene Worth, Donald Beves and Peter Woodthorpe.