“What’s Troilus and Cressida about?” my husband asked in the pub just before the show.
I started to laugh – poor guy, next month I’m also dragging him to Henry VI, Part 2 in Albanian. As a New Zealander, however, he volunteered for this one. “Well… it’s kind of long and boring,” I said.
Troilus and Cressida is not the best constructed of plays. It has some delightful bits and some verrrrrry long bits, particularly when the Greek (or, in the Maori version, Kariki) nobility get going.
I was very pleased to see Ngakau Toa cut much of the Achaean yammer-off in favour of Quite A Lot Of Haka. This isn’t only for the sake of our uncushioned bottoms – Troilus and Cressida is around the same length as King Lear, in Shakespeare’s #7 spot – but it turns out the New Zealand theatre company translating the story to classical Maori culture worked extremely well to illustrate the themes of the play, possibly (dare I?) more effectively than Shakespeare himself.
The Maori haka is an aggressive performance of masculinity. The rituals and imagery surrounding the warrior culture are an in-your-face reminder: I’m here, I’m fit, I’m going to kill you with a stick. The emphasis on performing machismo was a perfect way to highlight the satire that is the most successful part of the play (which is, let’s face it, a bit hit and miss). The Greeks and Trojans all stride around the stage posturing about what great fighters they are – when in fact all they do until the very end is sit around chatting, moaning about petty issues and having kind of boring offstage sex.
It’s a good joke on Shakespeare’s part, but it doesn’t usually make for compelling drama. There is humour in the great fighter Achilles spending 95% of the play lounging around in his tent, flirting with his boyfriend Patroclus, but it still means the audience has to sit through it.
Ngakau Toa stepped up this contrast between what the warriors say and do by throwing in a surefire audience pleaser: haka, haka and more haka. Not only did it keep things lively, but it really did serve the play as the discrepancy between the men’s macho posturing and their louche actions became increasingly obvious. The mockery of Juanita Hepi’s Tehiti (Thersites, Ajax’s servant, who loudly makes fun of just about everybody) came through loud and clear thanks to the established physicality of the warrior dances.
Kahira (Cressida) I think was least well served by the translation out of English, as she’s the character with the least straightforward motivations, whom detailed dialogue would have helped the most. Her initiating a sexual relationship with Taiomete (Diomedes) seemed to be played fairly straight: she used to fancy Toroihi (Troilus), she feels a bit bad about it but now she fancies Taiomete. It didn’t translate strongly how, as a single woman in an enemy war camp, Kahira needed to come under someone’s protection or be at omnipresent risk of sexual assault – although the scene where all the Kariki men forcibly kiss her had a few flashes of this, particularly with Aikiri (Achilles). However, the sexual danger that drives her to Taiomete didn’t come across to me.
Herena (Helen) was intriguingly wearing a European-inspired dress: a backlaced corset-ish red top made from indigenous fibers, and what looked like a cream satin off-the-shoulder dress. (It’s not pictured in the press photo above, but you can glimpse it in the background of the photo below.) I don’t know that it was explicitly intended to evoke colonialism (mostly because I don’t like it when all indigenous or post-colonial narratives boil down to And Then Whitey Came And Ruined Everything – although it is an important story, it’s also important to have indigenous stories that don’t revolve around Whitey because Whitey is not the centre of the universe and Brown People have their own stories too. Even when those stories are translations of Classical Whitey performed for an audience of English-speaking tourists. I think). Instead it was an effective visual reminder that she’s not one of ours – That Girl Is Trouble.
Kerenga (Cassandra) was tremendous: at first I thought she was Hecuba, she looked so regal. She had a glorious full voice, and chanted all her prophecies as a musician played a flute behind her. The effect was exactly right: eerie and elemental, with a side of “who is that mad woman, and when will she stop going on about whatever it is?”
Aikiri, Toroihi, Parihi (Paris) and Hiakita (Hector) were extremely fanciable, as well they should be – I appreciated that Xavier Horan, who plays Hiakita, resembled Eric Bana, who played Hector in the not-as-dreadful-as-everyone-says 2004 film Troy. I thought Patokihi (Patroclus) just about won the camp-off between himself and Panatara (Pandarus, played by New Zealand favourite Rawiri Paratene), but it was a very close thing. And Urihi (Ulysses) and Akamemana (Agamemnon) successfully kept some of Shakespeare’s dullest scenes from being boring – a serious achievement in any language, never mind one most of the audience didn’t speak.
I also enjoyed watching a handful of New Zealanders in the groundlings’ yard (the actors’ friends? Random Kiwis who happened to know the moves?) performing the final haka, stamp for stamp, along with the cast.
Full marks to Ngakau Toa for an extremely enjoyable production of a play I don’t like very much.
I saw Globe to Globe’s Troilus and Cressida at Shakespeare’s Globe on April 23, 2012.