The Testament of Cresseid
4 stars ****
ON A STAGE lit only by a wintry backdrop of a bare tree in a snowy landscape, an elderly man with a grey beard sits musing, in an old wooden wheelchair. He is the narrator of Robert Henryson’s great late-mediaeval Scottish ballad The Testament Of Cresseid; and perhaps the ghost of the poet himself, riven with regrets for lost youth, and with a grief for lost love that contains tinges of guilt and rage, and of rebellion against the cruel ways of patriarchal gods.
Henryson’s Cresseid is openly based on the work of his English predecessor Geoffrey Chaucer; but it looks not so much at the story of the famous love-affair between Cresseid and the Trojan prince Troilus, as at Cresseid’s savage fate after she betrays Troilus with the Greek general Diomede. Director David Levin’s decision to play some of the speeches of Cresseid, Cupid and Saturn as recorded voice-overs is a mixed blessing, although it powerfully captures the way fictional characters take on a life of their own; the voice of Cresseid is just not womanly enough to carry the weight of the story. But In Jimmy Yuill’s brave and troubling central performance as the poet, Levin has found a real gem; and an actor capable of embodying the rebellious, humane and passionate spirit of the European Renaissance in which Henryson played his part, and without which the Enlightenment of the 18th century would never have taken place.
Until 5 September
EIF p. 27