If drama were a sport, then the name Gavin Bantock would probably be known throughout Japan.
Transposed into the baseball universe, for example, Bantock might occupy a position similar to that of Fumiya Tsuta, who through the 1970s and 1980s led the students of Ikeda High School in Tokushima Prefecture to nationally televised glory in the annual Koshien high school baseball tournament.
Or perhaps Bantock would be more famous still. As the 72-year-old Briton explained during a recent interview, “If there were national competitions for full-scale student drama like ours, then our standard would be too high for anyone else to compete.”
Bantock has taught drama in Japan for 43 years. Between 1969 and 1994, he was at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture — he retired only after his British nephew, Merwyn Torikian, came to replace him — and since then he has been the director of drama at Meitoku Gijuku Junior and Senior High School in Susaki, Kochi Prefecture.
In each of those institutions, he has established English-language drama clubs and, as their leader, supervised successive groups of students through the rigorous process of putting on full-scale plays. For Bantock, that process begins with the writing of the play — or adapting it from an existing work — and also encompasses everything from book-binding, set-designing and costume-making to directing and acting.
These days, his students at Meitoku put on two plays per year. Their most recent was staged Friday: “The Monkey King: Journey to the West,” an adaptation of the ancient Chinese tale that readers may know best from the 1970s Japanese television adaptation, “Saiyuki” (or “Monkey,” as it was known overseas).
The production, which Bantock reported was “successful beyond our expectations,” was held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and China.
“The role of the Monkey King was played by a third-year high school student who had to remember 234 lines,” Bantock said. “He has been in our group since junior high school, and is quite a veteran by now.”
The role of Sanzang the Priest was played by a third-year student who hails from Hong Kong and is one of Meitoku’s many foreign students.
“Neither boy has ever needed prompting during performances,” Bantock said. “In fact, for ‘Monkey King,’ we didn’t even have a prompter at all!”
Bantock himself first came to Japan in 1964, shortly after graduating from Oxford University with a degree in English language and literature. That trip was instigated by his father, Raymond, who had taught at Tokyo’s Waseda University for several years during the 1920s. A son of the renowned composer Sir Granville Bantock, Raymond was a well-respected educator and also a playwright.
“When my father first worked in Japan, he was called the second Lafcadio Hearn,” Bantock said, “although he was rather aloof and tended to spend his vacations in China or Russia.”
Not so the young Gavin, who was sufficiently taken by the “vitality” of Japan that he decided to return, in 1969, to settle permanently.
By then he had four years of teaching experience in England under his belt, so Bantock took up a job instructing literature and language at Reitaku University. It wasn’t long before he started melding that work with his own fledgling passion for theater.
Under the banner of the Reitaku University English Drama Group, Bantock began creating abridged versions of plays, including many by William Shakespeare, which his Japanese students could perform.
“At the time, there were universities in Japan presenting selected scenes from Shakespeare in English, but none were putting on full plays,” Bantock said.
In 1969, they did “King Lear,” and over subsequent years they tackled “Macbeth,” “The Tempest,” “Hamlet,” “Julius Ceaser,” “Timon of Athens” and many more. (In fact, of all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays, there are only four that Bantock has not yet produced in Japan — and those are the ones he judges too “smutty” for students, such as “All’s Well That Ends Well.”)
Bantock has always approached his work with the seriousness of a professional. The plays have been videotaped since 1972, and the group’s 1975 production of “King Lear” saw its first professionally printed program. It was complete with an interview with kabuki star Ichikawa Somegoro (now known as Matsumoto Koshiro), who himself had recently played Lear.
One year, Bantock met with Tsuneari Fukuda, who was one of the great translators of Shakespeare into Japanese. “Fukuda told me that Japanese students cannot express emotion in English. That’s not true, I said. They can, because acting is a lie.”
In fact, Bantock sees drama as a valuable tool for language-learning. “I’ve always maintained drama is the best way to teach English because people can move and express emotion. In a classroom you just read a book and you sit. Drama is the best way to make the language real,” he said.
To ensure that all 30 or 40 of the members of his theater clubs have speaking roles, Bantock deliberately chooses plays with many characters. “Monkey King” was easy as he could add as many monkeys to the monkey kingdom as he liked, though with some of the Shakespeare plays he needs to improvise by dividing single characters into two. He also annotates his scripts with a series of coded markings so the Japanese students understand where to pause and place emphasis so their dialogue will sound natural.
The networks and friendships forged through Bantock’s theatrical productions have lasted decades. “Producing a play is such a team effort that it really is like a sport,” he said.
Several of his former students from Reitaku now teach with him at Meitoku, and one of them even made the costumes for the recent production of “The Monkey King.” Bantock’s wife of 36 years, Kyoko, also helps with the productions.
Ironically, despite the quality of Bantock’s theatrical productions at Meitoku, the school is best known for its students’ achievements in sports. Fourteen times it has sent baseball teams to Koshien, and it has also produced top-level soccer players, including Alessandro Santos, and sumo wrestlers, such as the Mongolian-born Asashoryu.
And although excellence in the world of drama isn’t quite given the public recognition afforded by competitive sport, some of Bantock’s former students have gone on to professional careers on the stage — one at the Shiki Theatre Company and another at Toho.
Bantock enjoyed recalling a particular conversation he had with those former students. “I asked them if professional theatrical productions were much different to the shows we used to put on together at school,” he said, a smile creeping over his face. “They answered, ‘No, they’re just the same’.”
The Reitaku University English Drama Group will present Bantock’s “The Monkey King” at the university’s Small Theatre on July 7 at 5 p.m. For further information, call Merwyn Torikian on 0471-36-1353 or see www.cs.reitaku-u.ac.jp/RUEDG/. Arrive early as seating is limited.