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Troilus and Cressida (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Troilus and Cressida (1981)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 7/11/1981, colour, 190 mins
DirectorJonathan Miller
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerJonathan Miller
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerColin Lowrey
MusicStephen Oliver

Cast: Anton Lesser (Troilus); Suzanne Burden (Cressida); Charles Gray (Pandarus); John Shrapnel (Hector); Vernon Dobtcheff (Agamemnon); Kenneth Haigh (Achilles); Benjamin Whitrow (Ulysses); Esmond Knight (Priam); 'The Incredible Orlando' (Thersites)

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A love story set against the backdrop of the seemingly endless Trojan wars.

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Broadcast during the fourth series of the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle, Troilus and Cressida seems to have been something of a pet project for producer-director Jonathan Miller. Inspired by the fact that Shakespeare was adapting primarily medieval texts, he and designer Colin Lowery updated the setting from ancient Greece to an indeterminate period somewhere between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the cusp of the Gothic and the Renaissance.

This approach could have led to something visually elaborate, but Miller was keen to stress the play's intimacy and the fact that it is primarily about moral argument rather than epic battles. The warring parties are given contrasting settings: the Trojans live in a barely-furnished city of stripped wood and recycled furniture, suggesting long-term siege, while the constantly bickering Greeks inhabit a run-down field interspersed with tents and crude fortifications.

A challenge facing adapters of this particular play is that despite the title there are no obviously dominant characters. Troilus (Anton Lesser) and Cressida (Suzanne Burden) don't even meet until the end of the first half and spend very little time together thereafter. Both Lesser and Burden found their roles problematic: Lesser admitted that he didn't fully grasp Troilus until just before shooting started, while Burden was keen to play down Cressida's reputation as being an unfaithful trollop: she (and Miller) saw her as a naïve young woman who finds herself unable to cope when surrounded men she described as "these rough attractive Greek warriors".

Miller also stresses the play's comic elements by encouraging Pandarus (Charles Gray) and Thersites (Jack Birkett, credited as 'The Incredible Orlando') to camp their parts up outrageously - he felt this was especially necessary in Thersites' case, as he found the grimly misanthropic character "rather tiresome" on the page. Although primarily a dancer and mime, the blind Birkett had also played Caliban in Derek Jarman's 1979 film of The Tempest, which is where Miller had first noticed him. Gray, by this stage, was a BBC Shakespeare veteran, but his lecherous, sexually ambiguous Pandarus may be his outstanding contribution to the cycle.

As the 190-minute running time suggests, the text is presented more or less in full: the only significant cuts being the omission of Act IV Scene III and some trims to the battle scenes and some of Pandarus' and Thersites' more obscure references. Although not the first television Troilus, it is now generally accepted as definitive.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Truth and falsehood (5:14)
2. Cassandra's prophecy (4:41)
3. Thersites' cynicism (2:04)
Gray, Charles (1928-2000)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Troilus and Cressida On Screen