Trojan Women Make Israel Anti-War Pleas in Three Tongues

“Trojan Women” on the Tel Aviv stage is a cosmopolitan production of an anti-war tale.

The ancient Greek tragedy is told in Arabic, Japanese and Hebrew. The audience needs the translations provided on screens. The actors just comprehend each other’s expressions and suffering, a message with resonance in today’s Middle East.

“The only place where there is any dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is on the stage of Cameri,” said the Tel Aviv theater’s artistic director Omri Nitzan.

“Our Kissinger is the world renowned Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa,” he said, referring to the former U.S. Secretary of State who carried out Middle East shuttle diplomacy in the 1970s.

Cassandra, Israeli Ola Shur-Selektor, comes onto the stage holding two torches, imploring her mother Hecuba, Japanese actress Kayoko Shiraishi to rejoice, not cry, over her forced marriage to Greek victor Agamemnon. Later, Hecuba weeps as she watches her daughter-in-law Andromache, played by Palestinian actress Rawda Suleiman, plead for the life of her grandson.

“Sorrow and grief and war are the same in any language, and in any culture ‘war is no good,’” said Shor-Selektor. “Even though we speak our own language, we understand each other.”

“Trojan Women,” based on a series of myths, was the reaction of playwright Euripides to conquests, acts of slaughter and abuse of prisoners in ancient Greece.

Election Issues

Israeli national elections are being held on Jan. 22. The issue of stalled talks with the Palestinians over their bid for an independent state to end years of conflict, has taken a back seat to socio-economic questions and the security threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel and the Palestinian leaders haven’t held direct talks since Sept. 2010, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month building freeze in the West Bank settlements and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declined to negotiate unless all construction was halted.

“It is a sad fact that this is a Greek play from before the time of Christ, and today nothing is different,” Ninagawa said. “This play is the natural result of watching news on television, reading newspapers and realizing that we have to do all we can to understand others.”

Understanding others was Ninagawa’s motivation for casting women speaking three different languages in the main roles. The 15-member chorus, in groups of five, recite each line from the original Euripides play in their native tongue in turn, stretching the performance to 2.5 hours.

Listening Process

“There is a very small hope that with the same line spoken three times, the audience can’t abandon the effort to listen to all of them,” said Ninagawa. “The coexistence of the three languages is a message and you have to go through it.”

It wasn’t a message every member of the audience was open to hear. Some walked out at intermission. Others complained about the tedium.

“What Ninagawa did was take three cultures and give them freedom to live in the same territory -- on the stage -- where each expressed their culture, mentality, language,” said Nitzan. “The same words, the same feelings in a different language. The message was ‘listen, absolutely everything is alike. That is the irony.’”

Cameri is no stranger to plays with a political message. “Return to Haifa” is about a Palestinian couple who fled the city. They return years later to rediscover their home and the infant they left behind with Jewish neighbors. They find him serving in the Israeli army. The show upset many people, Nitzan said.

Understanding Plea

“Our attempt,” he said, “is to understand the other. This is the key for dialog and dialogue is the basis of theater. One talks, the other listens and then responds.”

It wasn’t that easy working with the three different cultures, Ninagawa acknowledged.

“The play is like a drop of tears in the big ocean,” he said. “You make a play with Arabs, Jewish and Japanese actors. There can be lots of problems. But the efforts we make to make theater is a small effort.”

The play, co-produced by the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv and the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, debuted in Japan with a set made of curtains, so it can easily travel.

“Theater is often set in European culture,” Ninagawa said through a translator, “but here we are from the Middle East and the Far East working together. I’d like to show this to the world.”

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