I get more pleasure from going to see a Shakespeare play I don't know than from the old favourites that I've seen over and over again. I knew nothing about Troilus and Cressida before seeing this Cheek by Jowl production at the Barbican, though I skimmed through the text beforehand and found it fairly impenetrable. It's amazing how Declan Donnellan has the knack of turning something obscure into something simple and lucid, while other directors seem to manage the opposite. I was absolutely thrilled by this production, though after seeing half a dozen plays by the same company, both in English and Russian, I wasn't surprised. That's the other good thing about Donnellan and his designer partner Nick Ormerod; they're consistently on top form, but that doesn't mean that every production uses exactly the same box of tricks. There's a minimum of scenery, and lots of movement, and everything is based on giving meaning to the text rather than pulling and twisting it into a shape that matches the director's preconceptions. There's no sense that this is some kind of mystical experience on which the audience is being allowed to eavesdrop; it's all done for our benefit.
The Barbican theatre has been reshaped before for Cheek by Jowl, but this time the playing area is a narrow rectangle with the audience on either side, a bit like the Edinburgh Tattoo. Logically enough, because the next play on in the theatre is going to be Black Watch, another play about war that was first staged in an Edinburgh drill hall. The only scenery is a few stools, which come together to make a bed or a platform, and even a tent for Achilles. The Greeks and the Trojans have swords and shields but while the Greeks are in black, the Trojans are in white, and their fighting uniforms are modern. They wear what looks like American footballers' body armour, rather like those kitschy Gladiators that used to be on TV. It's all simple but effective. This has been dubbed Shakespeare's nastiest, most cynical play, and I can see why. Military glory is a sham, soldiers spend more time preening themselves and intriguing against their own side than in fighting the enemy, and the war itself seems totally pointless. It's a good antidote to Henry V. Love is followed by betrayal as Troilus loses Cressida in a cynical deal between the Trojans and the Greeks, and her loyalty to him dissolves at the first hurdle. It's an ensemble play and it's hard to single out individual performances, but newcomer Lucy Briggs-Owen (a 2007 Drama Centre graduate) and Alex Waldmann are outstanding as the vulnerable young lovers, collapsing into bed with a teenage pillowfight. Briggs-Owen's final scene, in which she alternately resists her captor Diomed and responds to his advances, is wonderful. I particularly liked Ryan Kiggell (whom I last saw as Valentine the dentist in You Never Can Tell in the West End) as a bespectacled, donnishly pompous Ulysses, and Richard Cant as an androgynous Thersites. Cant, with blond wig and ballgown, is at the centre of a powerful pre-battle party scene that oozes muscular military homoeroticism. I thought briefly of Privates on Parade. Cheek by Jowl veteran David Collings plays Pandarus as a seedy old gent in a linen suit and panama hat, while Paul Brennan as Achilles and David Ononokpono as Patroclus form a musclebound odd couple. Marianne Oldham is also excellent in the double roles of Helen of Troy (who starts the play with a flourish as the prologue) and Cassandra. Donnellan seems to have the knack of coaxing extra special performances out of actors, some of whom (Kiggell and Collings being the exceptions) don't have much Shakespeare on their CVs. This is a great production of a difficult play which lasts three and a quarter hours. It wasn't a moment too long.