Renowned as a problem play due to its tangled ambiguities and a storyline that cries out for a catharsis, “Troilus and Cressida” is among the most rarely staged of William Shakespeare’s 37 plays.
In Japan, other than Yukio Ninagawa’s all-male 2012 production, whose spectacular and muscular battle scenes ensured sell-out audiences dominated by young women, you could count on the fingers of one hand all the other major stagings here, ever.
With the situation the same the world over, performances of this verse-drama from 1602 hardly figure in theater history, unlike many of the Bard’s plays such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Hamlet” — his longest work, written just before “Troilus and Cressida” — or “King Lear.”
However, judging from the current production at Setagaya Public Theatre (SEPT) in Tokyo, all that may now change.
In fact, this wonderfully entertaining and absorbing version by 62-year-old director Hitoshi Uyama looks sure to break this play’s jinx — and also become the stuff of legend among all those involved in its creation, and those who see it.
Set during the Trojan War, a Bronze Age conflict between mainland Greeks and the city of Troy (near Hisarlik in present-day Turkey), Shakespeare’s tragedy draws on the less dark medieval poem “Troilus and Criseyde” by Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th-century so-called Father of English Literature.
Its storyline portrays a disreputable aristocrat named Pandarus (played here by Toru Watanabe) advising Troilus (Kenji Urai), a son of King Priam of Troy (Toru Emori), how to woo and seduce high-born Cressida (Sonim), whose priestly father has left Troy to join the Greeks.
Soon, the young couple are swearing their everlasting love — but then Cressida is handed over to the Greeks in exchange for a Trojan prisoner. To meet her again, Troilus joins a Trojan army fighting in Greece — only to find she has hooked up with a Greek prince named Diomedes (Kenichi Okamoto). Then Troilus’ beloved elder brother, the hero Hector (Eisaku Yoshida), is treacherously killed by the famous Greek warrior Achilles (Eiji Yokota) — and Troilus vows revenge.
That’s where Shakespeare’s play leaves us, with nothing resolved as dying Pandarus (from whom we get “pandering,” akin to pimping) delivers its closing speech to humanity — to “bequeath you my diseases.”
Even for Uyama, the in-demand former artistic director of the New National Theatre, his creation of this nonhighbrow, popular (in a good and positive sense) “Troilus and Cressida” is a real tour de force — and one that will surely inspire many and varied other stagings of this unsung work.
At SEPT, too, set designer Jiro Shima excelled, fashioning a circular stage that extends right up to the front row of seats at eye level, with steep steps and boulder slopes leading down to it and thin red and white vinyl curtains billowing like skirts from the ceiling and able to be moved around or removed to rapidly change scenes or the mood — assisted by atmospheric live drum music.
In contrast to Shima’s elegantly simple, abstract set, costume designer Masami Hara ensures the cast’s roles as Uyama envisaged them are reflected in the detailed modern costumes she’s created.
For instance, pure-minded Troilus appears in a boy-next-door hooded khaki Mod’s coat, while vapidly bisexual Achilles sports dreadlocks, tattoos, hot pants and a gorgeous fox-fur coat over his bare torso — and Cressida’s cocky new Greek beau, Diomedes, wears a punkish black leather jacket in contrast to her seductive white lacy dress.
Between them these actors and the rest of the cast brilliantly develop such an engrossing drama as to make audiences identify with this contradictory love story from far away in time and space as if it were part of their lives today.
So, as some on stage schemed for their own benefit and self-interest — while others paid with their lives for their sexual passions, an aging king grieved for humans’ silliness and a courageous prince kept his dignity, but died in vain — audience members gazed on, doubtless reflecting on characters and problems from their own experience.
As the director says about in the program: “Starting from a tiny motive, the chain of humans’ stupidity and ugliness easily spread over the world. I think Shakespeare plainly described a life lesson through this story of the Trojan War — and that’s the truth of this famously problematic play.”
Uyama continued, saying, “Why does ‘good’ — love, faith and honor — collapse so easily in this play? I think it’s because we as humans overestimate our true nature. … After all, humans need to accept and live with every contradiction and turmoil, such as opposing values, their own identity versus conformity, ideals and reality, good and bad — and also life and death.”
That’s well and good in theory, but what was key to Uyama presenting Shakespeare’s obscure problem play, so often dismissed as pointless and boring, as an exciting universal human drama?
In a word, its success hugely depends on the casting and the must-see acting of the troupe Uyama assembled from his home base at the prestigious Bungakuza theater company in Tokyo, with its tradition — which Bungakuza star Watanabe points out in the program is very rare in Japan — of cast and directors all discussing and debating together their roles and the play in rehearsal.
In addition, Uyama also called on several actors and technicians from his award-winning, nine-hour production of Shakespeare’s monumental “Henry VI” at the New National Theatre in 2009.
Indeed it was that play’s Henry VI (Urai) who is now the honest hero Troilus, while Richard Plantagenet then (Watanabe) this time creates an unforgettable, comical Pandarus alongside standout performances from Bungakuza colleagues Yokota as a charismatic Achilles, Tomohiko Imai as the shrewd Greek commander Ulysses and Emori as fearsome King Priam.
Certainly, Uyama and all concerned are to be applauded for this rare collaboration between a private-sector theater such as Bungakuza and public theaters such as SEPT and Hyogo Performing Arts Center. But while opening a new vista for Japanese theater in that way, this production also breathes exciting new life into an oft-overlooked play.
“Troilus and Cressida” runs till Aug. 2 at Setagaya Public Theatre in Sangenjaya, Tokyo. It tours to Ishikawa, Hyogo, Gifu and Shiga. For details, call 03-5432-1515 or visit setagaya-pt.jp.