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The Cure at Troy
Cockpit Theatre, London

Benedict Henriques
posted 23 September 2005

Floodtide's production of Seamus Heaney's re-telling of Philoctetes can best be described as a mixed success.

The action takes place on the island of Lemnos, where the wounded Philoctetes has been stranded by the Greeks on their way to assault Troy. Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, is forced to return to Lemnos when a prophetess foretells that Troy will only fall if Philoctetes and his bow and arrows (inherited from Hercules and therefore indowed with magical powers) come to the aid of the Greeks. Unfortunately it is Odysseus who was principally responsible for abandoning Philoctetes in the first place and the archer has sworn to kill him. Odysseus' solution is to use Neoptolemus (the son of Achilles) to trick Philoctetes into giving up his bow and arrows so that he can be captured. However, the tension between Neoptolemus' desire to serve the Greek cause and his disgust at the deception leads to an unforeseen and heart-rending series of confrontations.

Heaney's script is well written, juxtaposing lyrical poetry with hard-hitting naturalistic dialogue. Unfortunately, only some of the cast live up to the script. The chorus, though well focused and sometimes believable, lack both energy and passion. The opening discussion of poetry is more memorable for the effective use of lighting than the speech itself. Lawrence McGrandles as Odysseus is hardly more impressive, often seeming wooden and disengaged (though the character's intention and callousness are clear). At the beginning of the play he often slips into a monotonous drone that numbs the audience against the importance of his words. However, his performance near the end of the play, where he berates both Neoptolemus and Philoctetes is a powerful and brutal demonstration of the amorality his character represents.

Neoptolemus and Philoctetes are played with far greater skill by Andrew Macklin and Anthony Shuster respectively. Both actors convey the pain their characters endure with compelling realism. Also, the contrast in physicality and energy between the two provides a strengthening background to their passion. The crippled and world-weary Philoctetes and the young and idealistic Neoptolemus express the essence of the play and produce some memorable moments. When Philoctetes berates Neoptolemus for betraying him, the agony of both characters is palpable.

The success of the leading performances is reinforced by well-crafted lighting, which creates the dark atmosphere required by the script. The use of dim lighting or hard-edged spot-lights gives the impression of obscurity and deception. This reinforces the focus on the leading characters and to some extent mitigates the failures of the chorus. Similarly the use of an almost bare set allows the audience to concentrate on the story without being distracted.

All in all this is an moderately successful presentation of the story, but the outstanding performances of the two main characters (as well as the excellent direction given to them) are significantly undermined by a lack of support from the chorus and Odysseus. On the other hand, the timeless power of Greek drama has been contemporised brilliantly by Heaney and, for all its faults, the production is worth watching.

Till 24 September 2005


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