Troilus & Cressida, The Globe, 24 April 2012
With the theatrical violence of the haka at its centre, Māori culture proved an excellent setting for Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan War.
The opening moments of the Ngākau Toa production were deceptively subdued. A horn accompanied by a bone being struck made a doleful sound.
But soon the stage was full of fierce warriors in tasselled loincloths with their upper legs and posteriors adorned with intricate tattoos.
The prologue to the play was presented as a haka, at first with all the men dancing in unison and then with the warriors split into opposing groups to represent the Trojans and Greeks. The background to the war was explained with characters including Menelaus, Priam, Helen and Paris making an appearance.
The distinct impression was created that we were in the presence of warriors who were acting, rather than actors pretending to be warlike.
The thunderous energy of their stamping and the grotesqueness of their tongue-brandishing grimaces set the tone for everything that followed.
Voices were harsh and warlike, pitched just below the force of the full-on war dance. This meant that Agamemnon’s question to his generals about their military failure was not a gentle enquiry, but a fierce challenge from a visibly angry man.
Gestures, hissing and grimaces from the dance returned at other moments of conflict in the play. The fight between Ajax and Hector saw single combat in that aggressive style.
The sticks used for fighting also became symbolic phalluses, for example when Diomedes made it plain that he would be trying his luck with Cressida (Awhina Rose Henare Ashby) once she was transferred to the Greek camp.
In response, Troilus flared and threatened using body language that required no translation from the Māori. Later, in a moment of self doubt, Troilus (Kimo Houltham) drooped his stick to the ground, symbolising his anxiety about his manliness.
Blockish Ajax was portrayed by the most corpulent actor in the ensemble. The connection sometimes assumed between physical bulk and stupidity is apparently a widespread one.
The intellectual tendencies and thoughtfulness of Ulysses seemed embodied in his trim beard. But he and other characters such as Nestor, as elders, were not expected to display the same degree of energy as the younger men and their dress was more modest.
The only senior figure to look as if he meant business on the battlefield was Agamemnon, who wore a wrap around his waist, a small feathered top and a crown.
By contrast with the warriors, Pandarus (Rawiri Paratene) was extremely camp, his voice having some of the high-pitched fragility of a Japanese geisha. He flirted openly with the warrior men, admiring their bodies. When invited to sing for Paris and Helen, he attempted to grope the Trojan under the guise of the movements of his performance.
The atmosphere of hypermasculinity meant that Cressida’s welcome among the Greek generals was particularly lascivious. Even the overtly gay Patroclus, who spent most of his time standing nonchalantly holding a stick across his shoulders, insisted on a smooch.
But although the women in this production were not warriors in their own right, they were nevertheless characterised by a fierceness of temperament instilled in them by their martial society. Or put another way, they were expected to kick ass when required.
They were present in the opening haka, albeit in a subsidiary role with less stamping and greater emphasis on the hand trembling gestures that form part of the dance.
Helen, although beautiful, had a steely determination that made her an equal to her abductor, the warrior Paris.
Cressida emerged from her first night with Troilus with her hair a complete mess, and emitted a loud sigh of satisfaction that indicated that she had not just been the passive recipient of her lover’s attentions.
When her betrayal of Troilus with Diomedes finally came, she not only gave him the sleeve but also a passionate kiss, showing that once her mind had changed, it had changed whole-heartedly.
Thersites was a female, played by Juanita Hepi. This made for an interesting characterisation. Her tied-back hair and thin angular features were complemented by a shrill nasal voice that she used aggressively to mock everyone around her. She often sat on the steps leading down to the yard, observing onstage events with a fixed, critical expression.
Her impersonation of Ajax was all the more comic for the discrepancy between her slender female form and the vast bulk of the target of her taunts.
The performance culminated in the final battle in which Troilus vowed to kill Diomedes.
The women stood upstage and made slow, regular clicking noises by flicking a tasselled percussion instrument.
Once Hector had killed Patroclus, Achilles armed to join the fight to avenge the death of his lover. His savage warriors, all black face paint and black feather adornments, surprised the unarmed Hector and attacked him with wild animalistic abandon.
With the Trojan’s best hope for victory dead, the distraught Troilus left the field. Pandarus stood upstage and gestured towards the audience, wafting his diseases at us.
The subdued horn and bone music from the start of the production was repeated at its sad conclusion.
To the audience’s delight the entire cast reappeared to perform a graceful dance, very much in the style of the Globe’s traditional closing jig. This then turned into the more warlike haka. The strength of the stamping on the boards was so intense as to warrant fears for its structural integrity.
Then an incredible thing happened. A contingent of Māoris in the yard began their own haka in a variant used to convey congratulations. The actors on stage watched and listened. A pause in the yard haka gave the cast an opportunity to respond, so that the two groups entered into a haka dialogue.
This was something that few theatres other than the Globe could have witnessed. The yard space, praised for creating an intimate bond between actors and groundlings, was here being used by a section of the audience to create an immediate theatrical response to the performance on stage.
The more usual curtain calls followed, and although something of an anticlimax, they were warmly extended and received.