The battle continues as two more plays go head to head.  Can the medieval English defeat the classical Greeks and Troyans to be contenders for next year’s touring show?

Edward III has only been seriously included in the ‘legitimate’ Shakespeare canon for little more than a decade even though, depending on your stance on authorship theory, it has as much right to be there as 1 Henry VI, Pericles or even Macbeth.  I was very excited, as a champion of the lesser-known plays and fan of the Histories, by the New Cambridge edition of the late 1990s but haven’t really ever returned to the play in detail.  Having much more stylistic knowledge now than I did then makes revisiting Edward III an interesting experience – as with 1 Henry VI in 2009 and re-reading The Two Boring—sorry, Noble—Kinsmen and Sir Thomas More this year, I found myself pretty certain I knew which bits were Shakespeare’s contributions.  The New Cambridge says Edward III can’t be any later in composition than 1592-3 which fits with similar theories of 1 Henry VI as a jointly-authored-by-several-guys-project in terms of where Shakespeare’s early career was at.  The presence of the historic Edward looms large through the other Histories – in my 2009 Summer Shakespeare production of Henry V we had a special Edward III ‘salute’ which everyone onstage performed every time his name was mentioned (and it carried over to our production of 1 Henry VI later that year).

As well as the stylistic similarities, Edward III is closest for me to 1 Henry VI in its random episodic nature and that most of its episodes are based on historic events that, while recent and immediate and important to its original audience, haven’t necessarily gone down in the annals as being things that are common knowledge today.  At the start of the play, Edward listens to justification of a claim to France on his mother’s side just at the point that he can’t be bothered paying France the tributes they demand of him, so invades France while also dealing with a Scottish invasion at home.  Much of the first two acts deal with Edward’s sudden falling in love with the Countess of Salisbury and his battles with his conscience as she both bewitches him and resists his advances.  At the end of a lengthy scene akin to Richard wooing Anne in Richard III, the Countess offers Edward two daggers, says, “I’ll give in to you so long as you go and stab your wife with this knife, while I stab my husband with the other,” Edward suddenly realises the extent to which he has swayed from morality and repents.  The rest of the play features battle after battle as French territory is captured, lost and re-captured; the emotional climax sees Edward receive and process the news that his son Prince Edward has been killed, only to have Prince Edward then arrive victorious, having subdued the French in the face of impossible odds.

Pros: there’s NEVER been a production of it in New Zealand so we’d have a nice publicity angle; the verse is simple and direct and there are some great passages; the Act Two scenes between Edward and the Countess are really strong and compelling; like many of the other Histories the play defies genre constantly.  Also, doing Edward III would be the excuse to do a LOT of fun research and investigation – any play based on real events is always rewarding in that sense.

Cons: there’s a lot of talking and posturing; most of the events and incidents in the play are not particularly relevant or interesting to a modern audience (the battles of Bosworth Field or Agincourt, for example, turned out to be game-changing historic events audiences today have heard of; almost nothing in Edward III is going to jog the memory unless you’ve actually been to Calais); a play this obscure could be a really hard sell.

Troilus and Cressida, like Measure For Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, hails from the early 17th century when Shakespeare’s creative output was huge but stifled by an 18-month theatre closure.  It’s a much simpler play than it looks: Cressida keeps resisting the advances of Troilus, telling him (and her uncle Pandarus, who keeps soliciting on Troilus’ behalf) she’s not interested but then confessing to us in soliloquy that she does really like him but a) men ditch you once they’ve had you and b) we’re in the middle of an epic war; I could be sold to the Greeks tomorrow!  Finally in Act Three she concedes but no sooner have they left the stage to consummate the relationship than sure enough, Cressida is sold to the Greeks as ransom for the return of a Troyan prisoner.  Selfish impetuous Troilus makes her swear an unfair oath of eternal faithfulness which she is forced to break because she has to take up with Diomedes for protection from the dozens of other Grecian generals who are all over her, pawing and kissing her, from the moment she arrives in the Greek camp.  In a scene reminiscent of Othello IV.ii, Troilus spies on her, mishearing and misinterpreting everything she says to Diomedes as evidence of her falseness.

What complicates Troilus and Cressida is that 1. the relationship of the title characters is only a tiny portion of what’s one of the longest plays in the canon and 2. that what in all other versions of the story is the socio-political background, i.e. the siege of Troy by the Greeks, takes up the bulk of the play.  Even when he’s presenting both sides fairly, Shakespeare still usually chooses a side – i.e. in Henry V the French are not portrayed as out and out villains, nor are the English thoroughly sympathetic, but it’s clear amidst moral ambiguity that Henry is the play’s hero and the English the play’s victors – but part of the problem with Troilus and Cressida is that both sides are equally right, equally wrong, equally stubborn and equally entitled.  (This was part of what made 2003’s Toi Whakaari production, set during the Maori land wars with the Greeks as colonising English, so dissatisfying to me – it applied a clear right versus wrong approach in terms of oppressed minority versus conquering colonists to a play that’s meant to be morally ambiguous; I really hope the upcoming International Arts Festival version of the play is going to steer clear of such simplification.)  For me the first few scenes of Troilus and Cressida are really straightforward and exciting and direct, but as soon as we get to the first scene in the Grecian camp and what we think is going to be the subplot ends up hijacking the lion’s share of the play, it gets convoluted for me and confusing.

Pros: every single character is distinct and exciting.  Cressida for me is not the unfaithful harlot Troilus accuses her of being, but up there with Isabella and Helena as an unfairly wronged heroine.  Troilus is the first in a series of heroes who are both identification points for the audience but also irredeemably misogynistic; Ulysses has some of the finest passages in Shakespeare; Thersites has some of the finest bile and vitriol in the whole of Shakespeare; there’s great comedy in Pandarus, and it struck me this time around that all the Ajax Hector Achilles Patroclus etc. stuff is potentially very funny also; and in the same sort of genre defying as the Histories, it’s balanced with the prophecies of Cassandra, the very reasoned arguments for not returning Helen to the Greeks, and the rawness and fury of Troilus’ response in the final scene to the savagery of the Greeks’ treatment of Hector and then his rejection of Pandarus.

Cons: it’s really long; there’s already a production of it (albeit in Te Reo) scheduled to hit Wellington early next year and while there might be merit in seeing the ‘proper’ play rendered in English as a balance there are also huge pitfalls; the play’s cynicism and bleak conclusion aren’t necessarily what you’d want to send an audience out into a winter night with afterwards.

THE VERDICT: both plays are equally problematic but for different reasons.  However if it’s a battle for the greater good, then Edward III is not bringing a lot to the fight.  One really strong sequence of scenes involving Edward III and the Countess of Salisbury aren’t enough to defeat the military might of the combined Greek and Troyan forces, however weird and uneven and cynical some bits of Troilus and Cressida are.  But which is the greater risk: a play no one’s seen or heard of, versus a play there’ll have already been one version of in Wellington in 2012 already?  In all likeliness neither play probably has the hardware or weaponry to defeat many of the others in the game, but if it were me in the ring about to bitch-fight Much Ado About Nothing or The Merchant of Venice, I’d want to think I at least stood a chance of scoring a couple of points, or failing that to know I was being pulverised by a brother than some illegitimate half-sibling conceived in an alley while drunk.  The winner?  Sorry folks, it has to be Troilus and Cressida!

Next time: Round three – can the company’s favoured shortlist play (Antony and Cleopatra) beat out the company’s director’s favoured shortlist play (Timon of Athens)?  A Roman cheating on his wife with an Egyptian goes ten rounds with the canon’s greatest misanthrope as the battle continues.  See you there!

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