By William Shakespeare (1602)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, August 1968
Aldwych Theatre, London, August 1969
Aldwych Theatre, London, August 1969
‘Many actresses will tell you that Cressida is Shakespeare’s most rewarding part for a woman. She is certainly very modern: witty, astute, basically honest, ironic and self-sufficient.’ So wrote Norman Rodway, who played a scrofula-ridden Thersites in John Barton’s 1968 production ofTroilus and Cressida. Cressida on this occasion was Helen Mirren, in one of her earliest outings with the RSC. She doesn’t share her fellow cast member’s faith. In her autobiography, while admitting she ‘was not really ready for this but steamed ahead anyway’, she complains that the part is ‘underwritten’.
Is it? ‘Underwritten’ in Barton’s version, perhaps: that’s the impression you get from the reviews. I’m less sure about Shakespeare’s original, which (not for the first or last time) suffered not a little at the hands of a director Big on Ideas. Or, to be more precise, wary of Big Ideas. Or big on the idea that Shakespeare was wary of Big Ideas:
We use abstract words like Honour, Fame, Beauty and Truth to sanction what we do and give ourselves a sense of order and meaning. We need these to smooth over the confusion of life, and to avoid acknowledging the chaos within ourselves. (From Director’s rehearsal notes, published in theatre programme for the Stratford production, 1968.)Troilus and Cressida has been classed among the ‘Problem Plays’, and rightly so. It’s hard to know what the focus of Shakespeare’s attention was in this unusually wordy play, but I suspect it’s not the title characters. They serve to illustrate three themes that collide and mesh, each subjected to a critical scrutiny that borders on a cynicism we don’t associate with this author. Unlike Antony and Cleopatra, this pair are not the cynosure of neighbouring eyes. In thematic first place there’s the ‘just war’: one scene entirely devoted to the embattled Trojans arguing among themselves poses the question – is fair Helen worth fighting over? Second into the critical frame is the unquestioned virtue of heroism, subject for argument in the rival Greek camp as Achilles, the legendary hero, sulks in his tent, only to be lured on to the battlefield finally to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus. And third comes romantic love: an inspiration for Paris and for Troilus, reduced to a tawdry transaction by Cressida’s conniving uncle, Pandarus. Over it all preside two contrasting voices of commentary: the foul-mouthed Thersites, for whom the whole spectacle is nothing but ‘wars and lechery’, and the high-minded Ulysses, who refuses to ‘beg’ a kiss when Cressida is ‘kissed in general’ by the laddish Greeks.
Barton’s interest was what the Daily Telegraph coyly termed ‘peculiar doings which wasted a great deal of stage time’, mostly centred on Achilles (Alan Howard), who was portrayed as a prancing drag queen, wearing a blond wig and glittery nightdress. Reviewing the Stratford production, Harold Hobson fretted that Cressida was being written out of the script:
It would be pleasant to say that Miss Mirren has actually increased her celebrity this week; but Mr Barton's production, which presses upon the very limits of provocation, gives her no chance to do so.
It is hardly too much to say that Mr Barton sees this most disputed of Shakespeare's tragedies, not as Troilus and Cressida, but as Achilles and Perversion. There are times when the performance appears to be on the point of developing into a homosexual orgy in the midst of which poor Cressida's physical allure and moral delinquency seem a tedious interruption of the main sensational business of the evening, which is to show Achilles as a startling kind of male whore.If Cressida was a casualty of this simplification of the play, opinion divided on what Mirren made of the part she was left with. Irving Wardle saw in her performance ‘a sensual child who is on the point of seducing her uncle before Troilus takes her, and who moves over with equal facility to Diomedes.’ Gareth Lloyd Evans complained that this ‘bouncy’ Cressida ‘jumps upon her lines like a teenage pop singer’. When Troilus begged Pandarus for ‘swift transportance to those fields | Where I may wallow in the lily-beds | Proposed for the deserver’, Benedict Nightingale responded that even
… her most fanciful admirer couldn’t reasonably compare Helen Mirren with a lily-bed. She’d be better described as a Trojan teeny-bopper; a flirt, a tease, who falls on her back and satirically opens her legs – a rather easy and superficial way of suggesting wantonness. Miss Mirren has nothing to do with the Cressida described by Ulysses, the only voice in the play we can trust. He tells us that ‘her wanton spirits look out at every joint and motion of her body’. Why are English actresses invariably so unaware of the joints, not to mention the motions, of their bodies?The determination to update the play, in spirit, if not in staging terms, may plausibly be traced back to Jan Kott, the Polish scholar whose book Shakespeare Our Contemporary exerted a sizeable influence on Peter Brook and other RSC directors in the Sixties. Kott describes Cressida as ‘a teenage girl of the mid twentieth century. She is cynical, or rather would-be cynical. She has seen too much. She is bitter and ironic. She is passionate, afraid of her passion and ashamed to admit it.’ Simon Trussler duly noted that Barton’s production ‘mirrors the late sixties as surely as Peter Hall's version was attuned to the earlier years of the decade.’
Other reviewers were much more sympathetic to Mirren’s performance than Nightingale (who seems only to have become a Mirren convert in the Seventies). Robert Speaight thought that her Cressida, ’flexible and flirtatious, marked exactly the right distance between facility and faith’. WA Darlington praised her ‘very clear and original reading’, in his view well justifying her promotion within the company to leading parts:
She makes the girl shallow-pated rather than wicked and establishes this in her first scene with Pandarus. During her love-scenes with Troilus she convinces herself of her own sincerity and is all the more vehement in its defence because she really knows how little depth it has.Frank Cox wrote that ‘Helen Mirren's Cressida is the most assuredly successful young performance for the RSC since Estelle Kohler's Juliet, intelligently sensual in manner, vulnerable in her attractiveness yet scorning to invite our sympathy for a failure which is not wholly beyond her means to prevent.’ JC Trewin, while regretting that she ‘has still to develop as a verse-speaker’, thought that she ‘expresses lucidly the mind of a girl who is every man's Cressida. At the moment her love for Troilus is true; but she can easily be deflected by the next man, and she recognises her own character.’
When Barton’s production moved from Stratford to London in 1969, there was scope for some fine tuning. Harold Hobson noticed a change:
At Stratford I scarcely noticed either Troilus or Cressida. Something has happened since then either to them or to me. Now they are quietly and impressively the exquisite counterpart to the play's excesses of agony and horror. Helen Mirren is excitingly seductive and treacherous as Cressida, and her momentary flashes of shame are very moving.In an interview with The Guardian after the London opening, Mirren suggested that her own interpretation of the role had shifted in the interim:
For a while I deliberately played down my sexy qualities. This was my big mistake when I first played Cressida at Stratford last year: I fought against the sensualist, well, against the obvious sensualist, the open, free, sexy, ordinary, slightly silly girl. I wanted to make her intelligent and sharp and sexy, but neurotically sexy; something, in fact, she absolutely isn't. Now I don’t bother. I feel I no longer have to prove anything particularly about myself.Normally, when writing about a production from forty years ago, one is dependent on contemporary reviews and productions stills. With this Troilus and Cressida we can do a little better. In 1970 ATV made a documentary about Helen Mirren, Doing Her Own Thing, a keen bit of talent-spotting on the part of director John Goldschmidt. The film doesn’t survive, alas, but there is an audio track in existence, and it includes a couple of clips from the 1969 production: scenes I.ii and III.ii (in extract). It sounds like a rather exaggerated, ‘actressy’ performance by modern standards (and by Mirren’s own later standards). In banter with her uncle in I.ii, this is a very pert, sassy Cressida, parading – or at least affecting – first-hand knowledge of the birds and the bees. It’s a characteristic of Cressida’s speeches that she seems to stumble into double entendre. She says something, apparently in innocence, which a man will take in the bawdiest sense (III.ii.133; IV.ii.27; IV.ii.38), causing her to backtrack (‘You smile and mock me, as if I meant naughtily’). In going for the ‘obvious sensualist’, from her first entrance, Mirren may have prepared us better for Cressida’s act of betrayal later, but was something lost?
Simon Schama, who as a young man watched her ‘sinuous’ Cressida from the gods, thought not. He still remembers her performance as ‘the only version of the part that made entirely credible her betrayal of moaning Troilus to the hard man Diomed’. Whatever the merits of Barton’s production and Mirren’s characterisation, that comment goes to the heart of the Cressida ‘problem’ in this ‘problem play’. Shakespeare’s original audience would have been more familiar with Cressida’s story, a medieval embroidery upon the Homeric original, than we are. Since her very name was a byword for infidelity, her behaviour in the Greek camp would have seemed to them a reversion to type after her loyal protestations in Troilus’s arms, and therefore less problematic. Modern audiences look to director and actress to find an emotional arc to carry us from the fervid leave-taking of IV.iv to her flirtatious arrival in the Greek camp in the scene immediately following. Barton’s production made a substantial cut in IV.iv (from Troilus’s ‘Nay, we must use expostulation kindly’ to Cressida’s ‘O Heaven! “be true” again!’, lines 60-76). As Ralph Berry observed, ‘the effect is to drain off some of the intensity of the parting and, indeed, to weaken the focus on the lovers.’ But the cut had another effect: it removed the exchange of love tokens. As earnest of their fidelity, Troilus gives Cressida a sleeve, she gives him a glove.
Why does this matter? In a useful article, Carol Rutter examines the staging possibilities for Act IV. On her reading, Cressida’s glove epitomises what she calls the play’s ‘politics of costume’ and preserves a staging hint for productions in our own time. In Shakespeare’s text the leave-taking which begins at IV.ii is interrupted by a short scene, a twelve-line exchange between Troilus and Paris that serves little dramatic purpose, before Cressida resumes her anguish in IV.iv. Most modern productions cut IV.iii, or move it elsewhere, in order to give Cressida a continuous ‘grief aria’. This was true of Barton’s later production of the play in 1976 and of Jonathan Miller’s TV version of 1981 where Suzanne Burden sobs uncontrollably like a child right up to her enforced departure from Pandarus’s house. Rutter speculates – plausibly, I’d say – that Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about staging, took Cressida offstage briefly in IV.iii to cover a costume change. At the start of IV.ii, as the lovers awake in cold early morning, she is presumably in night attire. By IV.iv (it is now ‘great morning’) she has resignedly changed into daywear. The glove she gives Troilus is therefore an item she has already put on or is about to put on – not, as rather improbably in Miller’s production, an item she produces from under the pillow while still languishing in her nightie. In Barton’s 1968 production, Mirren had no costume change in Act IV at all. Rutter suggests that the interruption created by IV.iii and the costume change ‘work together to unsettle Cressida’s speech’. Directors who ignore these clues (and cues) run the risk of producing ‘a sentimental reading of the scene which mis-directs Cressida later… Her costume tells a story the lines don’t. The lovers swear constancy. The clothes write inconstancy.’*
At their first meeting in IV.v Ulysses calls Cressida a ‘daughter of the game’. My hunch is that the costume change before then is her recognition that the game is up. Having grown to self-awareness in wartime, she has spent her entire life among men. We never see her interact with another woman. Recognising, with an access of self-disgust, that she’s a chattel in a war economy, she has become complicit in her own commodification. And as people do in extreme circumstances, she compartmentalises her life:
TROILUS What offends you, lady?
CRESSIDA Sir, mine own company.
TROILUS You cannot shun yourself.
CRESSIDA Let me go and try.
I have a kind of self resides with you,
But an unkind self that itself will leave
To be another’s fool. (III.ii)
The speaker of those extraordinary lines is a highly complex character. Not Shakespeare’s ‘most rewarding part for a woman’, perhaps, but far from ‘underwritten’ if the production will give her wings to fly.
*There have been as many responses to this problem as productions of the play. Rutter cites the solutions adopted in later RSC productions. Tylee gives earlier examples. In Tyrone Guthrie’s 1956 staging at the Old Vic, the parting became comic ‘with Troilus trying to pin Cressida into her clothes between her sobs’. William Poel’s ground-breaking production of 1912 ‘had an opportunist Edith Evans [in her stage debut] already busy with her hat in the mirror while Troilus tried to gain her attention.’
Ralph Berry, Changing Styles in Shakespeare (1981)
Frank Cox, ‘Troilus and Cressida’, Plays and Players, August 1969
WA Darlington, ‘Acting of Cressida clear and original’, Daily Telegraph, 9 August 1968
Harold Hobson, ‘Achilles’ fatal flaw’, Sunday Times, 11 August 1968
Harold Hobson, ‘Heroes, heels and hypocrites’, Sunday Times, 17 August 1969
Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (rev ed, 1967)
Gareth Lloyd Evans, ‘The reason why: the Royal Shakespeare season 1968 reviewed’,Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969), 135-144
Benedict Nightingale, ‘Nothing but wars and lechery’, New Statesman, 16 August 1968, p208
Norman Rodway, ‘Troilus and Cressida’, in Shakespeare in Perspective, II, ed Roger Sales (1985), 41-50
Carol Rutter, ‘Shakespeare, his designers and the politics of costume: handing over Cressida’s glove,‘ Essays in Theatre 12(2), 1994, 106-28
Simon Schama, ‘Helen Mirren talks to Simon Schama’, FT Magazine, 25 February 2011
Robert Speaight, ‘Shakespeare in Britain’, Shakespeare Quarterly 19, autumn 1968
JC Trewin, ‘A degenerate world’, Illustrated London News, 5 July 1969
Simon Trussler, ‘As modern as the sixties’, Tribune, 4 July 1969
Claire M Tylee, ‘The text of Cressida and every ticklish reader: Troilus and Cressida, the Greek camp scene’, Shakespeare Survey 41 (1989), 63-76
Irving Wardle, ‘Sex and warfare at Stratford’, The Times, 9 August 1968
Ian Woodward, ‘A very leading lady’, Guardian, 4 September 1969
[a selection of reviews may be found at www.alanhoward.org.uk]