Forsooth, ’tis surely no great Shakes

by Nobuko Tanaka

“Shakespeare shakes you. The spear of his imagination shakes you, and the story shakes you,” said Mark Rylance, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, in an interview for The Japan Times last October.

He went on to explain that the first time the playwright’s name was published — presumably with his assent — it was written as: “Will I am Shake-Spear.” “It’s as if he wanted us to think of that,” Rylance commented, referring to the Bard’s feeling for the zest and relish of stage drama as a performing art.

So, is the current “Tenpo 12th no Shakespeare (Shakespeare in the 12th year of Tenpo [i.e. 1842])” at Akasaka Act Theater shaking the spears of its Tokyo audiences? Certainly, the stage shakes from the excessive sound effects, and the actors’ voices shake from gremlins in the mikes they all wear. But this three-hour spectacle entirely failed to shake this theatergoer’s spear.

Written by the dramatist and novelist Hisashi Inoue, an influential figure on Japan’s contemporary theater scene, “Tenpo 12th” was conceived as a challenge to traditional stagings of Shakespeare and was first performed in 1974 at that center of youth culture, the Parco Theater in Shibuya.

In the flyer published then, Inoue wrote: “Nowadays, everybody does Shakespeare, but unfortunately most of them are absurd and do not excite us. Essentially, Shakespeare should be splendid, varied and amazingly amusing. So, we will present our Japanese Shakespeare including all these essences.” And varied it is indeed, as Inoue integrated famous lines, episodes and characters from all 37 Shakespeare plays into this one samurai-era drama.

The story, starring a semushi (hunchback) called Sado no Miyoji, echoes the themes of “Richard III”– ambition, success, failure and a tragic love story — together with significant borrowings from “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” “Macbeth” and “King Lear” in particular. Obviously this is a grand dramatic challenge to rise to — but it was also a challenge to the patience of the audience, being 4 1/2 hours long in its original format. Nonetheless, it acquired a legendary standing in the ’70s, when there was a movement toward long plays, and many dramatists were striving to break away from traditional stagings and exploring other methods of presentation.

But back to this production, adapted from the original and directed by Hidenori Inoue. To the disappointment of those who had been awaiting this new, shortened version, the play seemed to go around in circles — ultimately amounting to little more than a cheap memorial, albeit expensively achieved.

Harsh words, but it failed simply because of its superficiality in opting for entertainment above all else — including content. The producers and director seem to have gone for a blockbuster formula to get bums on seats. Hence almost every player is a star, each trying to outshine the other and so nixing any feeling of cast unity. As well, the halfway-musical style, too-loud rock BGM and nonstop lighting effects conspire to further cheapen the production.

Instead of aping high-tech entertainment forms, it might help those behind the staging of “Tenpo 12th” to remember that “traditional” theater, imaginatively done, still has great power to inspire and excite audiences. As Hideki Noda’s “Richard III” and Yukio Ninagawa’s “Macbeth” have shown, there is plenty of space in the ever-evolving world of theater for original approaches to Shakespeare that remain true to his almost otherworldly universality, the sheer entertainment value of his plays — and the inherent magic of the stage.

In the end, I still do not understand why Hidenori Inoue ever chose to revive this play now — even though the entire run is almost sold out. Nor can I recall the last time I left a theater feeling so distanced from what had happened on stage, and regretting that I had received so little from it. This can only serve to give a bad name to the rich theatrical seam that postmodern Japanese Shakespeare surely is.