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by William Shakespeare
Bard on the Beach
Studio Stage, Vanier Park
July 12-Sept. 21

Shakespeare must have been in one pissy mood when he wrote Troilus and Cressida.  Or maybe he was pondering some Elizabethan version of the current mess in the Middle East.

In place of the noble warriors and heroic deeds depicted in traditional literary treatments of the Trojan War, Shakespeare peopled his play with “fools on both sides,” as Troilus puts it.  The Greek generals and warriors, Agamemnon, Ulysses, Achilles and Ajax, are vicious, self-serving, or moronic.  The Trojans Paris and Troilus are more concerned with courtship and false honour than common sense.  Hector knows better but fights on anyway. 

The Trojan women, Andromache and Cassandra, suffer their men’s folly and are ignored.  Cressida is used and abused by both sides.

The corruption and pointlessness are embodied by Pandarus the Trojan, a diseased pimp who speaks the play’s last words, and Thersites the Greek, a debased cynic who sums it up: “All the argument is a cuckold and a whore.”

Love comes off no better than war.  Sexpot Helen flirts with disgusting Pandarus, who brokers the mating of Troilus and Cressida, who turn out to be no Romeo and Juliet. While his Greek comrades die on the battlefield, the great Achilles languishes in his tent with his boyfriend Patroclus.

Director David Mackay sets his production, somewhat arbitrarily, during the American Civil War, with the victorious Greeks as the Union side and the honour-spouting Trojans as the Confederates.  I heard much grumbling at intermission about the Trojans’ Southern accents, which make the play’s dense language somewhat more difficult to follow.

The production’s greatest strength is its strong acting ensemble. Standouts in the Greek camp include David Marr’s dim Agamemnon, Andrew Wheeler’s machiavellian Ulysses, and Martin Sims’ doltish Ajax.  Among the most notable Trojans are Allan Gray’s ultra-sleazy Pandarus, Derek Metz’s conflicted Hector, and Anna Cummer’s poignant Cassandra, doomed to know the future but never be believed. Cummer also plays melancholically effective piano.

The show’s stars are Jennifer Lines and Tom Pickett. Lines’ Cressida begins as a self-involved, conventionally manipulative lover.  But once she becomes a pawn of the war she goes into desperate survival mode. Lines finds real emotional depth in Cressida and makes her one of the few sympathetic characters in the play.

Pickett’s Thersites, a black man in a tattered Union uniform, gets no respect from either side. With good reason to be cynical he dances around the stage, goading and mocking like a refugee from a minstrel show.  Pickett’s sensational performance is the best justification for the production’s Civil War setting.

The most chilling moment: when Ulysses refers to the towers of Troy that, in their arrogance, will inevitably fall, he points out across False Creek to the high-rises of the West End.  

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, September 12, 2006 12:32 PM
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