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Troilus and Cressida On Screen

Adaptations of Shakespeare's unclassifiable Trojan War epic

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Neither comedy, history nor tragedy, though with elements of all three, Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare's most original plays, despite being based on a well-known story (which had had many adaptations, notably Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde). To this basic narrative, Shakespeare added much historical detail about the Trojan wars, taken partly from Homer's heroic account but also from two much more critical medieval analyses. It is thought to have been written in 1602 (confirmation of its existence appeared early the following year) but there is no evidence that it was actually performed, and a cryptic reference in the first published edition of 1609 claimed that it was "never staled with the Stage, never clapper-clawd with the palmes of the vulgar". However, scholars point out that this could still mean that it had had a private performance.

Even if it had been performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, it is certain that it was barely staged between the early seventeenth and early twentieth centuries: the first recorded performance of the original text seems to have been in 1907. However, its reputation has increased over the next century, probably because the play's despairingly pessimistic analysis of war chimed perfectly with the sentiments of the time, and although it has not had a big-screen adaptation, the BBC has broadcast three television adaptations.

The first of these was shown on 19 September 1954, and 'repeated' (which in the context of a live performance means restaged) four days later. It was adapted and directed by George Rylands and starred John Fraser (Troilus), Mary Watson (Cressida), Frank Pettingell (Pandarus), William Squire (Hector), Geoffrey Toone (Achilles) and Richard Wordsworth (Thersites).

Twelve years later (25 September 1966) the BBC broadcast a version adapted from Paul Hill and Michael Croft's National Youth Theatre stage production, filmed at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Bernard Hepton directed the television adaptation, and in a Radio Times interview producer Michael Bakewell justified the decision to play it with an amateur cast (including Andrew Murray and Charlotte Womersley in the title roles) by saying "the young people manage to bring an extraordinary freshness and poignancy to their parts. They really look like Trojan young bloods out for battle. This is Shakespeare's most bitter and cynical play, yet the young lovers, Troilus and Cressida, are portrayed as very genuinely vulnerable."

The third adaptation, and the last to date, was the BBC Television Shakespeare broadcast of 7 November 1981. Directed by Jonathan Miller, it starred Anton Lesser (Troilus), Suzanne Burden (Cressida), Charles Gray (Panndarus), John Shrapnel(Hector), Kenneth Haigh (Achilles) and Benjamin Whitrow (Ulysses). In a generally well-regarded production which presented a fuller account of the text than its predecessors, Miller transposed the action from ancient Troy to an indeterminate period between the medieval era and Elizabethan England, with visual inspiration drawn from woodcuts by Dürer, Cranach and Altdorfer. The production was also notable for the casting of Jack Birkett (credited as 'The Incredible Orlando') as Thersites after he made a strong impression on Miller when he saw Derek Jarman's 1979 film of The Tempest. An accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was broadcast the same evening and presented by David Hunt.

The play also inspired one of the scenes in Theatre of Blood (1973, d. Douglas Hickox) - predictably enough, it's the scene in which Hector is murdered in cold blood and his corpse is dragged by horses, which is used as yet another excuse for a set-piece staged by disaffected actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) to despatch critics whose reviews he blames for the decline of his career.


BBC, tx. 19/9/1954, d. George Rylands
National Youth Theatre, BBC1, tx. 25/9/1966, d. Bernard Hepton (from Paul Hill and Michael Croft stage production)
BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 7/11/1981, d. Jonathan Miller

Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 7/11/1981 , p. David Hunt

Other References
Theatre of Blood, 1973, d. Douglas Hickox

Michael Brooke

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