Japanese Title: グリークス (Guriikusu)
Performed: 2000, Japan
DVD Released: 2008
Run Time: 470 minutes (That’s 7 hours and 50 minutes!)
Starring: Mikijiro Hira (Agamemnon), Seiichi Tanabe (Achilles), Kikunosuke Onoe (Orestes), Rei Asami (Andromache), Kayoko Shiraishi (Clytemnestra), Misako Watanabe (Hecuba)
Synopsis: When John Barton and Kenneth Cavander set out to adapt nine Greek tragedies (and the Iliad) into one long play, the result was The Greeks, which tells the story of three families – Agamemnon’s, Achilles’, and Priam’s – over the seventeen years surrounding the Trojan War. The play’s three acts and the tragedies they contain are:
· The War: “Iphigenia in Aulis” (Euripides), “Achilles” (based on Homer’s Iliad), “The Trojan Women” (Euripides)
· The Murders: “Hecuba” (Euripides), “Agamemnon” (Aeschylus), “Electra” (Sophocles)
· The Gods: “Helen,” “Orestes,” “Andromache,” “Iphigenia in Tauris” (all by Euripides)
Director Yukio Ninagawa’s 2000 production of The Greeks, for which he won a Kinokuniya Theatre Award (source), had a principal cast of twenty-seven and was an all-day affair that, with intermissions, ran ten and a half hours (source). This post is about that production’s 2008 three-disc DVD release.
My Thoughts: Apparently I didn’t feel that a Japanese production of Shakespeare was quite obscure enough for this English blog, because today I’m here to post about a fourteen-year-old Japanese production of Greek tragedy. A fourteen-year-old Japanese production of Greek tragedy that’s eight hours long.
Every time I remember that The Greeks exists I am kind of blown away by it. Putting on a performance of it must take so much more work at every level than a regular-sized play. As I understand it, the full play is performed only very rarely, although the individual acts are occasionally performed by themselves. I am extremely glad that at least one full performance has made it onto DVD. Not a word of a lie, this is probably my favourite of the Trojan War-related DVDs that I own. I love that it covers such a long time period and includes so many characters, but keeps a tight enough focus that it all feels like one story. I think Barton and Cavander achieved the tricky balance of staying true to the original plays while cutting, adding, and shuffling just enough to create a cohesive story that’s accessible to audiences who might only be vaguely familiar with Greek mythology. Meanwhile Ninagawa’s production, with its sparse sets and dark colours, emphasizes the brutal world that the characters inhabit.
You can check out my three screencap posts (The War, The Murders, The Gods) for more specific comments, but here are some other general thoughts I have about this production:
· “Achilles,” based on Homer’s Iliad, is the only segment not adapted from an existing play. The first time I watched it, I was impressed by how seamlessly it fits in with the rest; the second time, I realized there are actually two huge differences between it and the other nine plays of The Greeks: not only does it not have any lines for the chorus, but it also has a much smaller female presence than any of the other plays. What’s amazing to me when I say that is that it’s not like “Achilles” doesn’t feature any female characters – Thetis speaks in four scenes and Briseis in one, and for many works even today that would be considered a decent amount. But compared to the rest of the plays in The Greeks, that’s seriously nothing. Smarter people than me have debated the merits of the various female characters in Greek tragedy, but just in terms of number of lines and time spent onstage, I am constantly impressed by how huge these roles are.
· My absolute favourite female character in Ninagawa’s production is Electra, played by Shinobu Terajima. All of the acting in this production is top quality, but Terajima especially throws herself into her character. You can tell by the way she speaks that she holds herself in high esteem and never doubts that she’s right; you can tell by the way she moves and by some of the poses she gets herself into that she’s been living wild for several years. And her facial expressions are all so intense! I really enjoy watching her. It’s also amazing to me to think about The Greeks’ Electra after having read the part in Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today where actresses talk about how demanding it is to play Sophocles’ Electra. Whoever plays Electra in The Greeks doesn’t just have to play Sophocles’ Electra – an hour later, she has to play Euripides’ Electra in “Orestes,” which may well be just as demanding a role. On top of that, in this production, Terajima occasionally appears as a member of the chorus! And she’s not the only one who appears in multiple segments or plays multiple roles. I really have a huge amount of respect for everyone in this cast. Special mention also to Mikijiro Hira, because I found his Agamemnon surprisingly sympathetic, even when he was doing terrible things.
· One look at almost any of the costumes in this production and you’d know they weren’t striving for historical accuracy. I think they were hoping to evoke an atmosphere of the ancient past, not to recreate a particular era. But things get a little strange sometimes when medieval Japanese or even modern influences slip in – Helen sips a beer and flips through a fashion magazine, Apollo dresses like a character from a kabuki play, the sounds of modern warfare end both “The Trojan Women” and “Orestes.” I don’t dislike these other influences, but I’m not sure why they weren’t used more consistently throughout the whole play. There is one thing about the costumes that I really love, however, and that’s the threads that almost everyone wears, sometimes in their hair, sometimes on their clothing, sometimes dangling from their wrists. Greek characters have red threads and Trojan characters have blue threads, and it does amuse me when everyone is colour-coded, but really I just think they look cool. It’s also interesting to see whose costumes don’t fit this pattern. Helen, for example, never wears anything red or blue at all.
· I love the very fact that The Greeks exists so much that I hesitate to admit there are parts I don’t love … but I do wish there was a bit more to the sets. Ninagawa’s minimalist style is fine in shorter productions, but after eight hours I find I’m pretty tired of staring at the same empty black stage. Some of the tragedies have more set dressing than others, but there are some with hilariously little – I think “Hecuba” only gets a rock. I also don’t love that The Greeks ends with ten minutes of Athena and the chorus discussing the nature of happiness. Maybe my opinion of this will change as I become more familiar with Greek tragedy, because at the moment I’m still not really sure what to make of the chorus. I’m okay with them in all of their other appearances, but as soon as the main characters leave the stage at the end of the last tragedy my desire to watch ten minutes of philosophising definitely takes a hit.
· The above point might lead you to believe that I have watched all three DVDs in a row, but so far I haven’t. I would love to try it one day, if it weren’t for “The Trojan Women.” According to this report from someone who went to the play, following “The Trojan Women” there was a half-hour intermission. I’m not sure a mere thirty minutes would be long enough for me to remember what happiness feels like.
· The Greeks ends with a list of the names of certain Trojan War heroes spoken in unison by the chorus. The last hero named is Diomedes, who neither appears nor is mentioned anywhere else in the play. I’m not sure what Barton and Cavander’s intention with this was, but it always makes me think about how the story of the Trojan War, its beginnings and its aftermath is so huge that even an eight-hour play can only begin to tell it. (You may have noticed that The Greeks doesn’t even include all of the surviving Trojan War tragedies, omitting both Sophocles’ “Ajax” and his “Philoctetes.”) This is not really a comment on The Greeks, but it does remind me that one of the things I love so much about the Trojan War myth is how vast it is.
· I feel like I should apologize for heaping so much praise on something that (I’m rudely assuming) has a language barrier for many of my readers. If you ever have the chance to see a production of The Greeks, I would absolutely recommend it. I definitely see Ninagawa’s production becoming a frequent rewatch for me.
Other Greeks posts: The War screencaps; The Murders screencaps; The Gods screencaps
Buy it at: Amazon.co.jp, CDJapan. Please note that the DVDs are Region 2 and have no subtitles in any language.