Going full circle for sex and romance

by Nobuko Tanaka

Love is in the air at the Benisan Pit theater in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. There, downtown by the Sumida River, Theatre Project Tokyo is staging its latest production, “The Blue Room,” based on Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler’s “Reigen.”

When it was written in 1900, the piece was unperformable due to its erotic content. When, in 1921, Schnitzler finally decided to go ahead with a staging, the premiere in Vienna ended prematurely when police brought down the curtain.

It wasn’t until 1950 that the play finally broke the chains of censorship, when French director Max Ophls made it into the hit movie “La Ronde” — so called because it depicts a game of sexual roundelay, in which a single pair of actors in changing roles play out a sequence of encounters.

Several decades later, renowned British dramatist David Hare duly took up the challenge, embroidering Schnitzler’s rich cloth to create “The Blue Room.” With Sam Mendes (yet to win his directorial Oscar for “American Beauty”) at the helm, and starring Nicole Kidman, this version became a box-office sensation during its short season in London in 1998.

This time around, the challenge has been taken up by TPT’s artistic director, Englishman David Leveaux. His actors in this intimate two-hander are Masaaki Uchino and Natsuko Akiyama.

The play comprises 10 short scenes, each capturing the interchange before and after sex. In the middle of each episode there is a brief blackout representing the sexual encounter, the supposed “real-time” duration of which is then displayed on an LED sign — being 1 hour 1 minute, 36 minutes, or whatever — a clever way of commenting further on the relationship.

The real interest here, though, is the psychological rather than physical interplay, since in the 10 scenes the actor and actress take five roles each, with the two same characters never appearing twice together. On a pale-blue stage, unfold the stories of mostly romantic but timid men and realistic, instinctive women.

While it seems that cultural gaps between the West and Japan are constantly being filled in nowadays, in the realm of love — and especially in the representation of love — there is still a broad divide to be bridged.

Given this, Japanese audiences will likely be bewildered by this production first time round, whether because of the repeated use of the English words “f**k” and “f**king,” or because there’s no au-pair or European-type class system here — but particularly because it is so rare to see actors and actresses totally naked and so close up.

The theme may prove more shocking even than the staging, however. Simply by posing problems such as the lack of communication — or sex — between couples (topics long taboo on the nation’s stages) this production may signal a new direction for contemporary Japanese theater.

Indeed, its importance is such that we shouldn’t complain that this product appeared to be not quite ready when the first-night curtain went up, with both actors still seeming a bit nervous to disclose themselves. All that really means is that this play will develop in quality over the next month’s performances.

The biggest role here is not that demanded of either performer, but of the play itself. If this production persuades audiences that it connects with their lives, Leveaux may have succeeded in pushing the boundaries of Japanese theater a daring distance further.