East and West Meet on Stage, but Fail to Unite

'The Trojan Women,' a Jewish-Arab-Japanese adaptation of the classical play, provokes high expectations. So why does it lose altitude almost from the very start?

One of the most powerful experiences for me as a spectator in the theater is the one before the start of the performance itself. This is the moment when it is still everything it could be. Everything for which its creators planned, hoped and worked. You can pick up the program and read, usually in impressive detail, about who the doers are and what they have done until now and how far their reputation has spread and what they are putting - that is, what repertory peak they are about to climb and in many cases why and how they are planning to climb it. Yes, the expectations are a big part of the pleasure awaiting the theatergoer. However, then the house lights go dark and the stage lights come on and from that moment on, the expectant spectator is on his own before the potential shattering of his dream.

On paper - even before one reads the program - the production of "The Trojan Women" by Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, who for years has been wowing theatergoers with his unique versions of Western classics, mainly Shakespeare and the Greeks, is an achievement in the very fact of its existence. Here we have a guide from a different theatrical culture, with a distant and unique aesthetics, taking Western theater people by the hand and revealing to them new paths through the landscapes of their cultural homeland.

And now he has found the time and the desire to bring to the stage, from the pinnacle of his human and theatrical experience, one of the masterpieces of Western culture, which continues to be current nearly 2,500 years after it was written because, even though the wars are not the same wars and the gods are not the same gods, people are still killing people and women are suffering and taking the blows and lamenting. To this end Ninagawa brings together a group of Jewish Israeli and Arab actors (most, though maybe not all, Israelis ) who from their own experience know something about the fate of victors and vanquished, as well as Japanese actresses from a people that has also experienced chapters of victories, defeats and cruelties. Just think about the human and multicultural dynamic that must have been at work in the rehearsals. There is so much interest inherent in the these elements that it seems the production itself would already be the minor detail, a kind of inevitable piece of excess baggage necessary for the sake of form.

Beautiful moon, but ...

It would seem that way, but most unfortunately, it wasn't. Because the three-hour performance, from its start at a high level of expectations, loses altitude almost from the very beginning. The lights come on and the image of a large, full moon glows gloomily forth from the depths of the stage (and the emergence of the scene is a very beautiful moment in its own right ). Now a blue cloth is shaken in waves across the stage (a somewhat naive and worn effect, though pretty, and you think to yourself that maybe that's intentional ), and then the god Poseidon (Ashraf Barhom ) emerges from the waves in a loincloth and holding a trident. Okay, this is the prologue in which the audience is informed that what it will see is the result of a quarrel among gods, who are capricious and change their minds a lot at the expense of those who pray to them. The text is spoken in Arabic - and this itself serves as a design element for an audience that doesn't know the language - translated in subtitles.

And now the goddess Athena bobs out of the waves: She is wearing a kind of white toga and bears a spear in her hands that she lays upon the waves. This is Shiri Gedani, she speaks Hebrew and suddenly the stage seems nearly everyday. Something here feels jarring but when Athena lays her head on Poseidon's shoulder and the lighting picks up their faces in a shaft of warm illumination, you say to yourself, okay, this is beautiful after all. Nevertheless, right at this very moment there are the first signs of the problem of this mission: Though no one questions the greatness of the Greek tragedies, in fact we do not have agreed-upon knowledge of how they were produced in their own day, and even less do we have the ability to create on stage the feeling of the distilled grandeur and power of the emotion and pain in the words. Euripides' "The Trojan Women" is one of the most difficult plays because it has very little plot in it, and is in effect one long spectacle in which an extensive series of harsh blows rains down on a group of refugee women headed by Queen Hecuba. The male messenger enters again and again, blow chases blow, the women are in pain and weeping and the audience sits there with its heart shriveling. How is it possible to take in such pain and suffering? How is it possible to depict them today on the stage and have them make the heart tremble?

The production requires a combination of Hebrew, Arabic and Japanese. At first it seems as though Japanese, as a language and as an aesthetic, is the secret. After all, in his Japanese versions of Shakespeare and the Greeks, Ninagawa provoked amazement and there is no doubt he knows how to create beautiful, even stunning, stage scenes with music and a soundtrack and lighting. And after all, for us - for most of us - the Japanese theater is different and impressive and exotic and convincing in the very fact of what it is, because we have no real criteria for evaluating it. Moreover, Kyoko Shiraishi, who plays Queen Hecuba - symbol of the Troy that has been destroyed and who is now being abused - is highly impressive in her movement and her unique voice with its very different sound, from which it is exceedingly hard to conclude the meaning of its melody (and we are left only to follow the translation into Hebrew subtitles ).

I admit that she is a special actress and the group of Japanese refugee women - five of them - also look to me as though they are acting as a single concentrated group, as though they are all broadcasting on the same style frequency.

The weakest link

However, this play is a long series of monologues by Hecuba with sections in which the chorus gives background, reacts and argues. And even if modern theater people find a way to create the dual focus of emotion and style on the stage - yes, there are actors, even on the Hebrew stage, who are capable by means of a sublime text of stirring emotion and fashioning a shape - few of them really know what to do with a chorus and its texts.

The solution in this production is the (unholy ) trinity: All the texts of the chorus, even if they are spoken by a single actress, are heard three times over - in Japanese, then in Hebrew and in Arabic. And this, when each text appears simultaneously in subtitles in Hebrew, Arabic and English. At first it looks interesting. Gradually, as it emerges that the differences among the groups of actors are a lot less striking than what the idea promises, it becomes tiresome. What should have been a unique blend becomes an annoying mix.

And in this same mechanism something that is sad to admit becomes clear: I am not familiar with the Japanese actresses nor am I knowledgeable about the conventions of the Japanese theater, but their group looked to me unified and having a presence that goes beyond its physicality. To a large extent the group of Arab actresses also looked this way to me: Some of them, for example Salwa Nakara and Raida Adon, were impressive and convincing in their presentation of the text, the meaning of which I followed, after all, in the subtitles. Their movement as a group appeared unified and I thought I could discern a difference between them and the Japanese women, though I am not at all certain this has any importance for the production.

However, the group of Israeli women looked like each of them was working individually, each of them in a private world of movement of her own. According to the program it was the director who chose the actresses for the project. I would dare to assume it was the Cameri theater that suggested to him the actors it could release for the committed period of work and the great effort. I have no doubt the Hebrew-speaking actresses threw themselves into the project with full commitment, and I hope the international encounter was important to them. But I can only testify to my impression of their work in this production. Rivka Michaeli is a comic actress and in recent years she has been creating roles that are to one extent or another amusing in a series of plays at the Cameri ("A Warm Family," "The Suitcase Packers" ). Here, her distinctive voice in sentences that are supposed to express terror or pain sounds declamatory and mainly belongs to a world very different from the one the director is trying to create on the stage. So too in the case of Esti Koussevitzky, who in her declarative tone of voice that tries to shock and alarm, and in her movements - though she appears to have invested a great deal in their complexity and stylization - looked like she didn't belong to her character or her presentation. It seems Tiki Dayan searched for and found a personal style that at least isn't jarring in its outward aspect, while only Odelia Moreh-Matalon succeeded at moments in creating a kind of presence to which it was possible to relate emotionally.

According to the program, Ninagawa intentionally left it to the actresses from a different cultural background to do as they wished. According to Varda Fish, who is presented in the program as "the initiator of the dramaturgic project of the production" the "legendary" director told the actresses: "In this production do as you feel." It could be that this is what he intended, and it could be that just as I don't have the tools to evaluate the Japanese actresses in the context of their culture, he lacked the tools for evaluating the Israeli actresses in the chorus. I, in any case, didn't feel much beyond slight embarrassment some of the time.

True, there are parts when the group of refugee women act as a single body in organized movement to an excellent soundtrack, but in the end the chorus is such a significant element in its presence on the stage - in fact the play is about them, they are "the Trojan women" - that it is hard to ignore the weakness of the Israeli link in the international production, at least in the eyes of this Israeli spectator.

Another problem, and to my mind not a simple one, is the design decision to have the fighting men in the production wear sort of Greek period costumes in shades of brown and blue that look as though they were made for a school pageant about the cruel Greeks. When Talthybius (Mahmoud Abu Jazi ), in the role that is perhaps the most thankless in Western drama, pounds his chest with his fist in a movement that is without doubt a stage direction, the muffled echo heard in the auditorium only stresses the artificiality of the costume.

Extras in a Hanukkah play

True, it is only a costume, seemingly not the most important detail in an international production of a Greek classic that is important to perform, but what can be done if the two soldiers alongside Talthybius also looked like extras in a Hanukkah play? And this is my problem, because the scene in which they take part is one of the most difficult in world drama and it is preferable that the emotional weight not be accompanied by anything ridiculous in tone.

There was a similar tone in the performance by Motti Katz in the role of Menelaus, in his argument with Helen, the beautiful queen whose face caused the war because of which we are watching these women suffer. In the ceremonial context of the play, partly because of the nearly ritual repetition of the trilingual text, Katz's performance in the theatrical garb of the king of Sparta in shades of blue with his swaying peacock-like walk comes across as an unintentional comic interlude.

So it is true that Ola Shur Selektar brought to the stage - and of all things in the role of the mad prophetess Cassandra - a natural, fresh tone devoid of pathos, and Rawda honorably performs the unbearably difficult role of Andromache, the mother whose child is torn from her arms and taken to his death; I don't know any more difficult scene than this in all of world drama. However, the sad feeling this production leaves in its spectators is connected to the reason so many Israeli athletes travel to compete in the Olympics: The most important thing is to take part.

Abira Sheheino