The Testament of Cresseid
Classic Scots poem, recited with a modest touch of theatre
This article is from 2009.
If broad strokes of theatricality are to your taste this new translation of Robert Henryson’s 15th Century Scots riposte to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, directed by David Levine, might not be entirely to your taste. There’s a strong sense of the original work’s dark, repressive tone in Elizabeth Elliott’s modern translation, but nothing to look at, save the elderly wheelchair-bound narrator (played by Jimmy Yuill) and some modest back projections. This is essentially a slightly theatrical recital rather than, in any true sense, theatre, but it’s not entirely without effect.
The piece tells the story of Cresseid after her abandonment of her lover Troilus for Diomedes. Our speaker tells of her subsequent life after she is, in turn, ditched by Diomedes, when she at first becomes a prostitute and then, after cursing the Gods for her plight, a leper and outcast. Free will plays its part in what finally represents a grisly form of redemption for the put-upon heroine.
If the staging limitations do not lend themselves to spectacle, there is plenty to ponder here about narration and perspective. The piece both honours and questions Chaucer’s version of the story, while its speaker, an old man with a, by now, redundant interest in his own sexual practices interrogates the entire morality of condemning people for seeking a liberation of sexuality. The addition of several other speakers in voiceover (Andrew Dallmeyer, Anneika Rose and Richard Madden) renders a complex tale still more ambivalent, as Cupid, Saturn and Cresseid herself add layers to the story. Ultimately, the piece resolves itself as an intriguing meta-narrative, where we are left to judge for ourselves precisely whose story this is, and for what reason it is told. If this is not a happy tale, it is at least an intriguing, surprisingly contemporary, examination of the nature of stories, and their function within individual subjectivities.
The Hub, 473 2000, until Sat 5 Sep, 8pm, £17.