A scream says it all in the RSC's Troilus and Cressida

Amber James and Gavin Fowler as Cressida and Troilus. Picture: Helen Maybanks
Amber James and Gavin Fowler as Cressida and Troilus. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Peter Ormerod reviews Troilus and Cressida, presented by the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

It may seem a strange thing to say about a Shakespeare play, but this production of his curious romantic tragedy seems to question whether words are of much use at all. Such is the disparity between what is said and what is done that the writer appears to invite us to view his very art with suspicion. "There's language in her eye, her cheek, her lip," says Ulysses at one point; and more trustworthy it is than much of what is uttered.

Oliver Ford Davies, Geoffrey Lamb and Daisy Badger as Pandarus, Paris and Helen. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Oliver Ford Davies, Geoffrey Lamb and Daisy Badger as Pandarus, Paris and Helen. Picture: Helen Maybanks

For this reason, and for a few others, Gregory Doran's production makes for a rather peculiar theatrical experience. The play is infamously variable in its tone; it never seems quite to settle. That may well be the point, for certainty is eschewed at every turn. The most piercing truth comes not from a well-turned phrase, but from the violently pure scream of deaf seer Cassandra, played in remarkable fashion by Charlotte Arrowsmith, one of a clutch of performances that adds much-needed piquancy to what might otherwise be rather stolid fare.

The eponymous lovers hail from the warring sides in the seemingly eternal conflict between Greece and Troy. But their doomed relationship never quite feels like the true heart of the play. The more interesting action seems to take place around the fringes: Sheila Reid's diminutive and gloriously scurrilous Thersites is among the outstanding performers. Oliver Ford Davis is as watchable as ever as Pandarus, whose clumsy and overbearing attempts to unite Cressida and Troilus lend the production much of its humour. Cressida herself is played in a pleasingly fresh, direct and no-nonsense style by Amber James, and the whole cast are to be commended for their clarity of voice and keen sense of meaning.

Much will doubtless be made of Doran's staging of the play. It is presented as a sort of Mad Max dystopia with steampunk stylings; rusty hues and junkyard clutter abound in a savage wasteland. It suits the play well; it feels quite natural from the outset. And it gives an excuse to deploy the remarkable skills of percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, who has composed the crashing, clanking score and brings an element of Stomp to proceedings.

The play ends with one of Shakespeare's more bitter speeches, and some may be forgiven for wondering quite what the past three hours were really for. It is funny without being hilarious, sad without ever being tragic, attractive but never truly beautiful. There is a sense though that this could all be quite intentional, that its refusal to define itself is entirely of a piece with the play, that the real truth always lies somewhere below the surface, in a place even the words of Shakespeare cannot reach. It may not be many people's favourite play of this strong year at the RSC, but, in its own rather enigmatic way, it is certainly a worthwhile addition.

Adjoa Andoh and Suzanne Bertish as Ulysses and Agamemnon. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Adjoa Andoh and Suzanne Bertish as Ulysses and Agamemnon. Picture: Helen Maybanks

* Troilus and Cressida runs until November 17. Visit rsc.org.uk/troilus-and-cressida to book.

Charlotte Arrowsmith as Cassandra

Charlotte Arrowsmith as Cassandra

Andy Apollo as Achilles. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Andy Apollo as Achilles. Picture: Helen Maybanks

James Cooney, Andy Apollo, and Sheila Reid as Patrochlus, Achilles and Thersites. Picture: Helen Maybanks

James Cooney, Andy Apollo, and Sheila Reid as Patrochlus, Achilles and Thersites. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Sheila Reid as Thersites. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Sheila Reid as Thersites. Picture: Helen Maybanks