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Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer, adapted by Lavinia Greenlaw

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BBC Radio 4, 26 April - 2 May 2009
 
The plot of Chaucer's dramatic poem is straightforward enough: boy meets girl, the two fall in love and then trouble begins. As members of warring factions (Greeks and Trojans), they can never be together. In common with Romeo and Juliet, the course of true love never runs smooth: the two meet and resolve to elope; Troilus waits for Criseyde to come at a prearranged time, but circumstances prevent her from arriving. Mortified by her apparent lack of faith, Troilus throws himself into battle and dies.
 
Lavinia Greenlaw's updated adaptation unfolded as a series of dialogues involving Troilus (Tom Ferguson), Cressida (Maxine Peake) and Pandarus (Malcolm Raeburn). This technique invested Chaucer's work with a quality of immediacy, suggesting that the love-affair was not something to be discussed in public. Nonetheless it was surprising that the lovers placed such trust in Pandarus, whose smooth (not to say smarmy) tones suggested someone untrustworthy. He tried to be all things to both Troilus and Criseyde - confidante, father-cinfessor and go-between - but found all his plans coming to naught. Pandarus wanted to exploit the lovers for his own ends: as two young naive people, it was Troilus' and Criseyde's tragedy that they failed to appreciate his motives.
 
Director Susan Roberts set the lovers' struggles against a background of increasing political strife between Greeks and Trojans. This was suggested by the repeated use of background noise, as the respective armies listened to rabble-rousing speeches and resolved to exterminate their enemies. Neither Troilus nor Criseyde could escape the consequences of the war: Troilus had to prove himself as a fighter, while Criseyde became a political pawn as she was imprisoned as an hostage. Eventually duty took precedence over love: Criseyde could not meet her lover, and Troilus threw himself into battle.
 
Troilus and Criseyde is also about courtly love - that series of rituals performed by lovers to secure their beloved's hand. Greenlaw dramatized such rituals as a series of verbal duels: Troilus had to learn the right language of love to win Criseyde's hand, and needed suitable instruction from Pandarus. Acquiring proficiency in this art was no easy task; in a series of asides addressed direct to the listeners, Troilus admitted that he could seldom find the right words to express his feelings. He found it difficult to reconcile courtly love with political reality: when Criseyde failed to show up he registered his displeasure in purely self-interested terms (how could she have been so cruel in failing to understand the depth of his passion?). By such means Greenlaw emphasized the shortcomings of the courtly love tradition; it could be an entertaining game but it failed to acknowledge that circumstances might prevent lovers from playing it successfully.
 
Music assumed an important role in this adaptation as a way of setting the scene and registering the characters' emotions. As Troilus understood that his love-affair had come to an end, two violins played a soulful dirge; as he died, the music changed into a funeral march.
 
Whilst missing the elegant cadences of Chaucer's Middle English, this modernized version of Troilus and Criseyde captured the spirit of the poem.