Troilus & Cressida

- Director's Note


One of our leading actors, Ian McKellen, recalled recently in a television interview that he grew up in what some might call the golden age of radio drama, the 1940s and ‘50s, when the BBC Home Service (the predecessor of Radio 4) and Third Programme (now Radio 3) broadcast a wealth of plays originally intended for the live theatre, and that radio gave him his first experience in performance not only of Shakespeare’s plays but also Ibsen, Chekhov, Bernard Shaw, many translations of foreign classics including ancient Greek drama, as well as productions of the then leading playwrights of the time. I am about five years older than Ian, and my memories are similar. At the age of 17 I hurried home from my work in Leeds Public Libraries on the eve of Coronation Day in 1953, to listen on the Home Service to my first remembered production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with John Gielgud as Prospero! I remember listening to the work of then contemporary dramatists such as J B Priestley, Christopher Fry, Jean Anouilh. This was a time, which probably began during the Second World War, when travelling around was difficult (notices at rail and bus stations proclaimed: ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ and I wonder if for different reasons such times are coming again), when many fine actors devoted most of their careers to radio. An almost forgotten pundit of the time, the writer and critic Marghanita Laski, declared that radio drama was much better than television drama because ‘the pictures were so much better’; the pictures we create for ourselves from our imagination whilst listening intently to the spoken word. What Shakespeare has bequeathed to us is primarily a theatre of language; in audio theatre we have nothing but the language, with no visual distraction. Language is paramount.

Radio drama still exists, of course, and the technical presentation has been enhanced immeasurably, but ironically there is such a plethora of recorded sound on the internet, if we know how to find it, that we often can’t see the wood for the trees. and much of it tends to be lost in a huge forest of sound. Well, we hope that the production of Troilus & Cressida which I am introducing to you will be quite easy of access. Read on and you will find out!

The production, which is amateur although some of our cast have had professional training (and Dominic Burns, who is a professional singer, is a member of L’Opera National du Rhin, Strasbourg), was originally intended to be staged live, and plans were underway when COVID struck and I realised sadly that at my age I simply don’t have the physical energy to spend three nights a week rehearsing plus a week of live performances. So, we have decided to present the play via a medium which I had never contemplated before. Many of the cast I know quite well as they have taken part in many of my previous productions, some with the St Mary’s Youth Theatre, mainly at Skipton in the 1980s and ‘90s, some with The Hope Theatre Group, in Guiseley and Headingley, 2000-17, and a few with both organisations. Most of the recording has been done at my house, with our wonderful technical producer Andy Ferguson transforming my front room into a recording studio, though a few voices have been recorded elsewhere on the actors’ own smartphones.


Troilus & Cressida is a play which after 400 years is still not as widely known as it deserves. It is one of the plays which were singled out by Bernard Shaw when he wrote, in 1898, that in them Shakespeare was ready and willing to start at the 20th century if only the 17th would let him; were Shaw still with us, he would probably have said for the 21st century too. It is a great anti-war play, and as such, in my estimation ranks with Sophocles’ Trojan Women (c415 BCE), the First World war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and Pat Barker’s more recent Regeneration Trilogy. Since we began work on it last October the ghastly war in Ukraine has alerted us to something we should have thought about before, the sad fact that over the past decades there have been other ghastly conflicts in our world (for example in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, to name but three) which taken together have brought an extra contemporary resonance to a play written 400 years ago about a war that was bitterly fought some 3000 years previously, a war about pride, the fear of losing face, and of course territorial imperatives, what a character in another play calls the desire for possession of ‘quantities of dirty lands’. In Hamlet (c1600) we meet the fashionable courtier Osric, who has made large property investments and is ‘rich in the possession of dirt’. This was the age of early investment capitalism; today the trend has grown exponentially: how much of London and other major cities is owned by greedy international investors?

Few hard facts survive about the Trojan war, but memories of it still live in myth and legend. It was the defining war of the ancient world, as perhaps the First World War has become for us. The collective memory of the ancient Greek people inspired Homer’s epic poem the Iliad (c7th c BCE), which is essentially the first novel of European culture and of course one of Shakespeare’s principal sources for his play. He took the story of Achilles and Patroclus from it but made substantial changes, making it more tender and its ending paradoxically more cruel; in short, he made it more human. The tale of the Trojan lovers actually formed no part of the ancient Greek material; it was invented and grafted onto the traditional stories during the Middle Ages, and Shakespeare found it in Geoffrey Chaucer’s narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde (c1385). As he did with Homer, he turned it into a far more convincing story for us moderns, as Bernard Shaw implied in 1898. In Romeo and Juliet (1595\) the lovers kill themselves because neither can bear to live without the other, but the love between Troilus and Cressida withers and dies amid bitterness, jealousy and recrimination and, on Cressida’s part, both a feeling of self-guilt and, paradoxically, an innate will to survive. The war effectively blights their love, as it blights the lives and loves of everyone else in the play whether they realise it or not.

An anonymous preface to the first printed edition of 1609 calls the play a comedy, the First Folio (1623) claims it as a tragedy. Obviously, there was debate about its genre in its own time. It is full of comic satire, usually at the expense of the self-absorbed politicians who people its cast. Many on both sides of the conflict seem very like many of the narcissistic leaders who dominate the news today. Think perhaps of recent satire on Radio 4! And if you go back to it, you will scarcely forget Oh What A Lovely War, Joan Littlewood’s brilliant show about World War 1. Very funny, but very serious and profoundly moving too.

Peter Gilbert (2022)