‘Edward II’: The director’s take

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Two years ago, Shintaro Mori made his directorial debut at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, with a minimalist production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece “Waiting for Godot.” Now, at age 37, he’s back there at the helm of probably one of the West’s first-ever plays with an openly gay theme — the rarely staged classic, “Edward II,” by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93).

As one of Japan’s foremost young dramatists, Mori has already — mostly with Tokyo’s eclectic Theatre Company En — directed across a remarkably wide range, including works by the acclaimed British/Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (“The Lonesome West,” “A Skull in Connemara”), Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” and an adaptation of the kabuki ghost play “Yotsuya Kaidan.” With his own company, Monaka Kogyo, he’s also put on several new works by Japanese playwrights.

Even so, tackling the maelstrom of emotions swirling through “Edward II” must rank as a great career challenge for Mori. So, to explore his thoughts on the play and how to stage it, I sat down for a chat with the director just a few days before the Oct. 8 opening night.

Marlowe and Shakespeare were great dramatists in London at the same time, but Marlowe is little known in Japan. Why?

Shakespeare’s plays can be seen as the mature fruit of Elizabethan drama, but Marlowe died (aged 29) without reaching that level — though his works have a likeably immature roughness that attracted me to them.

They are like two sides of a coin. So, for example, Shakespeare’s “Richard II” was strongly influenced by Marlowe’s “Edward II.” However, the Richard II character reaches into himself as a human being to ask, “Who am I?” In contrast, Marlowe’s Edward II never examines himself, just as he never loses his positive attitude to his life.

But now I am interested in Marlowe’s remarkably realistic way of understanding humans’ nature. Also, though his writing isn’t high-brow, it’s very funny in many ways. So, if characters happen to behave rather smartly, Marlowe at once brings them back down. He is so nastily merciless and his view of people is so harsh that he avoids at all costs idealizing human nature.

The last time “Edward II” was staged in Japan was when the late U.S. writer, film director and JT contributor, Donald Richie, put on 13 performances in Ginza in Tokyo in 1968. Why did you choose to do it?

I thought the play reflects today’s world so much because it is about someone with no talent to lead but who becomes a nation’s leader — while those around him only care about their meaningless power games.

This sort of stagnation is very close to today’s Japan; time has just passed, but nothing has moved forward. So I thought it was the right time now to do this play.

Are you surprised to find yourself putting on this play at a major venue?

In Elizabethan drama, all sorts of people keep clashing, and those chaotic conflicts make it exciting. So to stage this play I’d always known I would need lots of different types of talented actors — and having a chance to do “Edward II” at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, is perfect because they can call on lots of top people. As the play is so bold, we need a seasoned cast who are strong enough to express its brutal drama.

But still, if you want to make a profit, you’d be better staging Shakespeare than “Edward II.” (laugh) I only have this chance to direct such a large-scale play that’s unfamiliar to Japanese because it’s a NNTT production.

What kind of image do you have of Christopher Marlowe himself?

If it were possible, I’d like to meet Shakespeare — but not Marlowe. (laugh) If they visited my rehearsal room now, I think Shakespeare would give me compliments and great advice, but Marlowe would utterly lambast everything. That’s my image.

When the English film director Derek Jarman made a film of Edward II in 1991, he particularly focused on the king’s homosexuality. How do you deal with that?

I don’t tend to major on the homosexuality especially because, if I did that, then this play’s focus would be off the point and its scope would be smaller.

I think this is a play essentially depicting human desire and it just so happens the king’s favorite is a man, not a woman. Anyway, the aristocracy in those days was a strongly male society and lots of them had their favorite boys, so there were always homosexual-type relationships here and there.

Fundamentally, the king was a lonely man and he hankered after love, so he was blindly attached to his lover, Gaveston. It’s the story of a silly man — but on the other hand it’s about a pressing problem for many.

So in your staging what do you focus on?

First, the power-struggle game that’s missing a central figure (the king); and second, what would happen if everyone exposed their underlying desires willy-nilly without any restraint and set off conflicts between each other.

As well, though — and this is my hidden theme — if I succeed in showing the transition of the young prince to becoming Edward III (Shintaro Anzai), I think my production will be very interesting. He was a clever pure prince, but he suffered a lot and also learned a lot from his parents’ power feuds, so he also came to want armed power in the end. People seek power so they can create what they believe is their ideal world — and they also kill or hurt others due to their own imagined fears and a desire to protect themselves. I want to show that nature of human conflicts in this play.

However, this play reflects not only today’s Japan, but today’s world. When I watched the TV news today, I could see in the Syrian dictator’s face the faces of Edward II’s lords — people fighting each other to protect themselves from their fictitious enemies.

“Edward II” runs till Oct. 27 at the New National Theatre, Tokyo. For details, call 03-5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp/play.