Theater Review: The Trojan Women

The Trojan Women. Directed by Yukio Ninagawa; Hebrew translation by Shimon Buzaglo, at the Cameri Theater, December 29.

‘THE TROJAN WOMEN’ 370 (photo credit: Aviram Shahinu)
(photo credit: Aviram Shahinu)
Sound designer Masahiro Inoue and composer Umitaro Abe take the honors in this daring, ambitious Israeli/Japanese co-production of The Trojan Women. A choir wails, entreats, mourns and whispers. Bells, gongs and crashing percussion intensify the drama as they signal its unfolding, and behind it all the endless crash of waves upon the shore.
For we are on the Trojan shore from whence the victorious Greek fleet will soon set sail for home, laden with rich plunder from the conquered city. The Trojan women of the title, and the play’s Chorus, are their noble captives destined for humiliation and slavery, apportioned like cookies among the victors.
The Chorus of Greek tragedy is there to narrate the big picture, to offer comment and generally move the action along. Director Ninagawa has used Euripides’ classical 15, five each Japanese, Israeli and Israeli Arab, each speaking their own language in order to highlight their several cultures.
The leads, too, are divided so that one character may be speaking Japanese while another speaks Hebrew or Arabic.
Chief among these is distinguished Japanese actress Kayoko Shiraishi, who plays Hecuba, Queen of Troy and widow of the slaughtered Priam. Her daughter Cassandra, Apollo’s virgin priestess and cursed prophet is Israel’s Ola Shur Selektar), Israeli-Arab Rawda plays great Hector’s widow, Andromache and so further.
Written during the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 BCE), Trojan Women demonstrates how war debases, how victor and vanquished both lose, how women in particular bear its brunt. This Trojan Women calls up echoes from the First and Second World Wars, and, most shockingly, 9/11 – how not? Classical Greek drama lends itself to the equally classical forms and conventions of Japan’s Noh and Kabuki traditions that Ninagawa employs to underpin this Trojan Women.
But above all Greek drama is text, and if the actors cannot plumb that text, the production plummets. Unhappily that is mostly the case here.
The cast is not entirely to blame. Since the English and Hebrew translations are pedestrian, to put it politely, one can only surmise that the Japanese and Arabic translations are similar.
Nonetheless, despite a clunky text, its repetitions by each chorus quintet does not work, not only because they impede the action, but because most of the Chorus don’t seem to have a clue what they are saying or how to say it, either physically or vocally. Clad disastrously in a kind of white diaper, Poseidon (Ashraf Barhom) suffers this same impediment, as do Athena (Shiri Gadni) and Shur-Selektar.
Happily there are exceptions. Moti Katz as an overdressed, over-jeweled, blue-clad Menelaus brings him to precise and comic life as a sleazy politician.
The lovely Yoka Wao delivers a sultry and mysterious Helen. Mahmud Abu-Jazi is sturdy and decent as reluctant Greek herald Talthybius and Rawda makes Andromache very real.
“Pity and terror” truly describe the moving scenes between her and Hecuba, but it has to be said that Shiraishi’s bereft queen too often slips over into garrulous harridan.
While visually impressive, the actual drama of this Trojan Women has buckled under its own multicultural weight.