Nicholas Wright’s Cressida has Michael Gambon as a down-at-heels theatrical entrepreneur in Jacobean times trying to make a go of it by training boys to perform women’s roles. Gambon’s presence and energies are as forceful as any actor’s in the business,, and he carries the play. But it’s not really clear what the play is about. The action is presented as a retrospective; Gambon’s character, John Shank, has died in the act of signing a contract to sell his latest prodigy to pay his heavy debts. This prodigy, Jhon, is a young lad, clearly “gay” (the term not used in the play, fortunately). There is something of a subtext of homosexuality, but very much restrained. It may be that Wright’s decadent, detritus-strewn Jacobean world is a metaphor for the otherness that in modern times still characterizes the world in which gay men still must make their way. What we get, at any rate, is a sordid world of mischance and opportunity gone away — but to what purpose, aesthetically or thematically, it remains unclear.
The setting was perhaps the best thing about the play. The towering curvilinear walls of a tiring house, concave and in a forced perspective reminiscent of Renaissance engravings, bend and fold in upon themselves, then swing 180° and join together again to form another scene. Pieces of the wall part and invert to form still other scenes. The concept is a striking one — almost of a world imploding upon itself. What we are watching, then, may be the inevitable entropy of a world past its apogee — that old world of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lines from which the young aspiring actor Jhon is so inept at pronouncing. The second Shakespearean reference, Troilus and Cressida, is tonally more appropriate, this latter play being about perfidy and the laps, or collapse, of a once-proud civilization. Nice idea for a play, but I never quite made contact with it.
This, another Almeida Theatre Company play, transferred from Islington to the Big Time in the West End, where matinee tickets now run at the top price of £32.50, more expensive than the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.