Yukio Ninagawa: “Troilus and Cressida”

Troilus and Cressida

Play
Japanese Title: トロイラスとクレシダ (Toroirasu to Kureshida)
Performed: 2012, Japan
Starring: Yusuke Yamamoto (Troilus), Yuki Tsukikawa (Cressida), Shun Shioya (Diomedes), Kei Hosogai (Ajax), Takehiko Ono (Pandarus)

Synopsis: Twenty-sixth in director Yukio Ninagawa’s series of Shakespeare plays and sixth in his series of Shakespeare plays with all-male casts, “Troilus and Cressida” tells the story of a Trojan prince who falls in love with a woman whose father has defected to the Greek side. Or that’s the one-line synopsis, at least, as the play is more of an ensemble piece that also features the Greeks’ attempts to get Achilles back on the battlefield. Often categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” due to its inconsistent tone and characterisations, “Troilus and Cressida” is a “systematic hollowing-out of the Troy legend” (source), a version of the Trojan War story in which the characters we’ve come to know as heroes are deeply flawed and frustratingly human.

This production of “Troilus and Cressida” finishes its run in Saitama on September 2nd, 2012. After that, it will be in Osaka from September 7th to September 10th, Saga for September 22nd and 23rd, and Aichi for September 29th and 30th. If you’ll be in the area with three hours to spare, I wholeheartedly recommend going. Tickets are here!

Review: I first heard of Yukio Ninagawa a couple years ago when I came across his version of Euripides’ “Orestes” on DVD. While I definitely enjoy his work, I suspect that most of that enjoyment comes from the simple fact that his choices of material allow me to watch plays that I never thought I’d see performed. I cannot overstate how excited I was to find out that he would be directing “Troilus and Cressida” – especially because I would be in Japan and able to see it live! I was lucky enough to see it twice near the beginning of its run in Saitama, and long story short, it was amazing. Knowing that it’s bound to come out on DVD, I’ll try to keep the length of this post within reason – a difficult task as I could seriously talk about this play forever.

First, a disclaimer: understanding a Shakespeare play in Japanese is still quite a task for me, and I really apologize if this leads me to write something that’s not quite accurate. Feel free to let me know about any mistakes you catch! Hopefully if I’ve made any grievous errors, I’ll be able to remedy them after the DVD release.

· This production ran three hours and five minutes (including a fifteen-minute intermission). I noticed a few things that had been cut, such as all of the dialogue between Pandarus and Paris’ servant at the beginning of 3.1, the section of 3.3 that includes Achilles’ fantastic “the magnanimous and most illustrious six-or-seven-times-honoured captain-general of the Grecian army, Agamemnon,” and Patroclus and Thersites acting out a visit to Ajax in the same scene.

· Thersites recited the Prologue, and soon after that Troilus made his first appearance hiding behind a cluster of sunflowers (the stage was littered with them!), throwing pieces of his armour up into the air in irritation. A way more dynamic start to the play than I’d expected!

· I loved watching 1.2, the scene where Pandarus describes the Trojan soldiers to Cressida as they come in from the day’s fighting. Now, I’m sure that about 98% of the reason I loved it is because I’ve been in love with this story for over a decade, and just seeing the Trojan royals returning from the battlefield, swords in hand, wounds wrapped, boldly looking out over the audience, gave me a ridiculous thrill. For basically the same reason, I also enjoyed any time the Greek generals stormed down the aisles to the sounds of trumpets and drums.

· Ajax in this production was young and attractive, and I feel like that’s such a rarity for him that even though he definitely does not have the best personality here, this is kind of my new favourite Ajax.

· Starting with their first appearance and lasting for most of the play, neither Achilles nor Patroclus wore the long blue cape that every other Greek character wore. I really liked this – “Troilus and Cressida” starts after Achilles has already withdrawn himself and his men from the battlefield, and the lack of the bright blue cape immediately set him and Patroclus apart from the other Greeks. Only after Achilles decided he had to get back onto everyone’s good side did he and Patroclus appear wearing them.

· Another result of the lack of capes leads into this bullet point about the portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship. As Achilles and Patroclus first appeared wearing neither the capes nor full armour, the only costuming on their torsos was leather straps and jewelry. This meant that whenever one of them leaned on the other – and they were pretty much constantly leaning on each other -, it was bare skin against bare skin. Uh I feel really weird being excited about a thing like this, but having recently read The Song of Achilles I was really, really stoked to see a visual medium portraying Achilles and Patroclus as more than just friends. (Not that it hasn’t happened before, just that this was the first example I’ve personally seen.) And there was more than enough touching/hugging/kissing to make it clear that they were a couple. Achilles’ lines in 3.3 that begin with “The beauty that is borne here in the face” were turned into a description of Patroclus; just before that, he and Patroclus appeared in the background of the scene playing hide-and-seek with Patroclus’ necklace. (In a move reminiscent of Troy, Achilles carried that same necklace onstage after learning of Patroclus’ death.) And I completely did not anticipate how the beginning of 2.3 would be staged: Patroclus, hearing Thersites grumbling outside Achilles’ tent, came onstage wearing nothing but a towel, and was soon followed by Achilles wearing nothing but the sunflower he held in front of his crotch (which definitely got a laugh from the audience).
     As amazing as all of that was, I’m definitely hesitant to praise it any higher than “yay Achilles/Patroclus.” In the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of “Troilus and Cressida,” line 5.1.15 (Thersites’ “Thou art thought to be Achilles’ male varlet”) comes with the following note: “Classical writers frequently mention an erotic bond between Achilles and Patroclus … though usually without Thersites’ characteristically cynical, even debased, attitude towards it. Productions since the 1960s have typically exploited this aspect, sometimes ludicrously, sometimes with great sensitivity.” Reactions from the rest of the audience made me think they were viewing the relationship more on the ludicrous side than I was, although why I don’t entirely know. Thersites’ “male varlet” was translated as “okama” (a not always kind word for a gay man). I don’t see anything funny about that line, but it got a laugh here. (Thersites’ next lines – in which he lists the diseases he believes homosexual activity leads to – were completely cut. I confess I have no complaints about that.) Before that, in 3.3, Patroclus reacted to Ulysses’ “‘Tis known, Achilles, that you are in love with one of Priam’s daughters” by grabbing the nearest sunflowers as if to strangle them. This, too, got a sizeable laugh. Again, I’m not entirely sure what I missed here, but I guess these laughs clued me in that perhaps this portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus wasn’t meant to be totally serious. (Maybe Patroclus greeting the Greek kings in nothing but a towel – amazing as that scene was – should have clued me into this earlier.) I mean, yes, it does fit the character of the play to make fun of them and their relationship, but … I don’t want to? Not in this way, at least. And I definitely wonder if this same portrayal would get laughs if played in North America. I guess it would depend …

· Cassandra was AMAZINGGGG, and I am saying this as someone who has kind of gone off Cassandra in recent years. Her facial expressions were really intense and I loved how her dialogue was a mixture of whispers and shouts, some of them unintelligible. Her costume had her barefoot, with long reddish hair and a ripped-up skirt. She also had perhaps the most interesting make-up in the play: a long streak of red running down the inside of each of her legs. While I feel like this could come with the implication that “women are crazy when/because they menstruate,” which I definitely don’t care for, I’m going to do my best to ignore that because just as a make-up choice I thought it was pretty cool.

· At the end of her first scene, Cassandra exited by way of the set’s middle door, which was wider than the others, allowing the audience to see the endless darkness she was walking into. The door closed while she was bending backwards, as if to take another look at us. To me, it was kind of reminiscent of what I remember being Cassandra’s last appearance in Michael Cacoyannis’ The Trojan Women, where she leans backwards out of the cart that’s carrying her away.

· I wish I could say my love for the other female characters in this production was as strong as my love for Cassandra, but unfortunately I found myself really disappointed with them. One problem I had – which I could look past were it the only problem – was the way the female characters held themselves. Cressida especially constantly had her arms poised as if she were a princess at a Disney park. I would have much preferred to see men playing characters who happen to be women, but for the most part I felt as though I saw men playing stylized women who happen to be characters, and it was frustrating enough to take over this and the next two points:

· I think my least favourite thing about this production was the way that Cressida delivered almost all of her lines in monotone. Through the entire play she sounded so distanced from and uninterested in everything. As I’ve read about a million times over the past month of researching this play, Cressida is a difficult character to read, but surely you shouldn’t deal with that by not trying to read her! In this production it was only during her final scene that I felt she was emoting; there was a part earlier where she fell to her knees but by itself I’m not sure that counts. After reading about the many different productions that have attempted a feminist reading of the play, it was disappointing to watch a production whose main female character was barely there.

· Though she is frequently spoken of, Helen’s only appearance in “Troilus and Cressida” is in 3.1 … and I was really disappointed with this scene too. Inspired by what I’m not entirely sure, when I read the scene I pictured a Helen and Paris with a good amount of intelligence to them. I imagined them both knowing why Pandarus has come to visit, but pretending they don’t in order to tease and fluster him. I also imagined a Helen who, while completely in love with Paris, enjoyed flirting with Pandarus, again just to bother him. Whether or not my interpretation is supported by the text I’m not actually sure, but this production definitely took a different approach. A good amount of dialogue was removed from this scene, and the lines Helen kept were all delivered – in a tone that resembled a whine – as she and Paris made out. I felt like this production’s Helen was completely one-dimensional, when a slightly different approach to the character could have avoided that.

· 2.1 ended with the stage dark and Achilles and Ajax speaking their lines while walking down the aisles in the audience. 2.2, the first scene in the Trojan palace, began with the onstage doors bursting open and Priam and his sons all walking onstage at once. It was a really awesome and immediate change in tone that was echoed in 4.4: Troilus and Cressida, having said their private good-byes, were embracing when a door flew open, the romantic background music stopped, and the party to collect Cressida entered in all their war gear. Then a silent moment passed before Troilus managed to pull himself away and greet Diomedes – which was really interesting to me because when I read the play I hadn’t imagined it being so clear to Diomedes that Troilus and Cressida were in a relationship.

· The ~everyone ignores Achilles~ portion of 3.3 was exactly as hilarious as I’d hoped it would be. Menelaus acting like he was going to shake Achilles’ hand, only to pull his hand back and use it to smooth his hair? Fantastic. But even better was when Achilles greeted Ajax and Ajax replied with a way overenthusiastic “HA?!?!,” complete with a hand cupped around his ear. New favourite Ajax!!

· The staging in the part of 4.5 where Hector is greeting the Greek kings was pretty amusing. He gave Menelaus a hug in a “heyyy man it’s great to see you again” sort of way, then turned back to Aeneas to quietly ask, “Who is this??” Not sure why Shakespeare decided that seven years of fighting wouldn’t be enough time for Hector to figure out who the Greek leaders were, but anyway.

· Troilus’ shouting breakdown after Cressida’s betrayal, Hector almost choking him during their last argument, Hector’s killing Patroclus onstage but unobserved by anyone else, Pandarus’ increasingly sickly appearance, and the sombre music that played from the final scene through to the end of the bows … I felt that this production really emphasised the loneliness that’s present at the end of the play. Relationships break down, beloved friends are killed, nothing is resolved. The last lines are Pandarus promising to “bequeath [us] [his] diseases.” It’s such a strange, empty ending but I’m glad they didn’t try to change it. (Though I do feel the need to add that Troilus and Cressida left hand-in-hand after the bows. This production ships them way harder than I do hahaha.)

· In conclusion, even weeks after the fact I remain completely stoked that I was able to see this play, and if you are also interested in watching a Japanese version of a Shakespeare play based on ancient Greek mythology, you should absolutely check it out!

Update: Check out my post about the DVD (with screencaps!).

Visit: Ninagawa x Shakespeare (the official blog)

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4 Responses to “Yukio Ninagawa: “Troilus and Cressida””

  1. Really enjoyed reading this!

    I liked your description of Cassandra’s red-down-the-thigh costume. Like, I’m preeeeeetty sure that it’s referencing menstruation / hysteria in a negative way, but I will choose to ignore that in the face of how awesome it sounds, and interpret it instead as Cassandra being a placeholder for all women who are pushed to the side and ignored because they are women, or something. Because the costume sounds REALLY NEAT and I choose to ignore the problematic bits.

    “Cressida especially constantly had her arms poised as if she were a princess at a Disney park. I would have much preferred to see men playing characters who happen to be women, but for the most part I felt as though I saw men playing stylized women who happen to be characters, and it was frustrating enough to take over this and the next two points:”

    REALLY INTERESTING. I find it fascinating (read: frustrating) when male directors treat their characters not as characters but as FEMALE characters. I mean, of course, female characters are female, but using gender to elucidate a character’s personality and motivations is very different than pantomiming femininity.

    In conclusion, awesome review, and I am sad I have not yet read T&C.

    Also, I suspect I am going to have to spend some time reading this blog’s previous entries. :)

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