Our World at War is part of the Camden Fringe Festival, and brings two of Shakespeare’s lesser-performed but thematically-linked plays to the Tristan Bates Theatre.
Both are set in the Graeco-Roman world (though transposed to modern day in these adaptations). Troilus & Cressida follows the variable fortunes of the lovestruck title characters against the backdrop of the legend of the Trojan War, where the Greeks pursued the captured Helen to Troy and waged a war over her safe return. Coriolanus concerns the life of the Roman general whose popularity amongst the senate and the people waxes and wanes. Exiled from Rome, Coriolanus teams up with the neighbouring Volscians in order to lead an assault on the city he believes has betrayed him.
First up is Troilus & Cressida, which leads the audience into a party atmosphere. It’s an unusual analogy for an unusual play, and whilst it stretches, it never quite breaks: although a party atmosphere is difficult to artificially create and there are times when it feels like the enforced jollity of a New Year’s Eve shindig. Inventive use is made of the space, with long party tables immediately creating levels and multiple locations. The truncated version, running to just under ninety minutes, succeeds in picking out the key plot points, and it gels thanks to the solid central performances of Nicholas Farr and Colette O’Rourke, who both exude a sweetness and innocence. A standout performance is Matt Butcher as Pandarus, whose camp exuberance at playing Cupid to the young couple is very funny. Troilus & Cressida also offers the best of CJ de Mooi as Thersites. The festive setting is ideal for his large personality, especially during his brilliant introduction of the heroes; which suits him far better than the stark world of Coriolanus.
The contrast between the two pieces works very well, especially for those who book to see both. Coriolanus takes the audience into a world of muted colours and uniform dress. Undoubtedly, the strength of the piece is the central performance by Prince Plockey, who was more recently an impressive Richard III, also for Lazarus Theatre Company. Against the backdrop of squabbling and in-fighting Rome, Plockey’s charismatic Coriolanus is a beacon of colour. Once again Dyfed Cynan shines. He plays Aufidius, leader of the Volscians, with great truth and nobility. The scenes between Plockey and Cynan lift the production and punctuate it with great moments, but taken as a whole it is not unproblematic.
Partly this is Shakespeare’s fault, for there is no disguising that Coriolanus is an argumentative, verbose play populated by too many peripheral characters whose concerns feel trivial. Long scenes of Coriolanus bidding for the support of the senate to become consul, and later falling out with the senate, are played against an unbroken line of chairs; and the sense of a committee meeting, with stationary seated characters, is hard on the eyes and becomes static. Perhaps more could have been made of the live television debate analogy, which raised the idea of democratically-elected politicians as leaders in war without fully pursuing it.
Troilus & Cressida and Coriolanus play one after the other, and you can book to see one or both. If you’re looking for just one we’d say Troilus & Cressida edges it: the party atmosphere is fun and colourful, and the central love story is well played-out, leaving it the most accessible of the two pieces. It is also more effective at creating and sustaining a unique world.