Remembering times passed

by Nobuko Tanaka

Outside it was a cold and rainy spring day in Tokyo’s residential Bunkyo-ku. Inside the 300-seater Sanbyakunin Gekijo theater, though, excitement filled the air as people milled around trying to get hold of standby tickets for Gekidan Subaru’s latest production, “Philip’s Reason.”

The day I went along was the last performance, and by then word about the play had obviously spread beyond the usual theater-going circles to local people. I was particularly amazed by the number of young teenagers there by themselves. Clearly Gekidan Subaru is well rooted in the local community — no mean feat for a small theater group, and a testament, no doubt, to its provision of translated scripts and clear background notes for foreign dramas.

This play, by the English dramatist and actor, Kevin Elyot, opened last year at the Royal Court Theatre in London under the title, “Mouth to Mouth.” It proved such a success that it transferred to the West End. Birmingham-born Elyot, 51, is one of the most outstanding dramatists working in Britain today, having won both the Evening Standard and the Laurence Olivier awards for Best Comedy and the Writer’s Guild and Critics’ Circle awards for “My Night With Reg” in 1994.

In this play, also currently nominated for Evening Standard and Laurence Olivier Awards, Elyot tackles some of the most pressing issues facing contemporary British society, including AIDS, the breakdown of conventional morality, drugs, the trend toward superficial consumerism and — as ever — class tensions. The curtain rises on Frank (Masahiko Tanaka), a second-rate gay playwright with full-blown AIDS, sitting at a table reminiscing with his friend, upper-middle-class housewife Laura (Masako Isobe), about an accident that happened a year before.

Then, Proust-like, we jump back one year to a summer afternoon in south London. Laura, her dentist husband Denis (Yutaka Nakano) and Frank are preparing a party to welcome back Philip — Laura and Denis’s 15-year-old son — from a Spanish holiday. They are joined by Denis’s straight-talking younger brother, Roger (Katsuhiro Kitagawa), and his airhead wife Cornelia (Kishiko Yonekura), a trendy interior designer.

The audience gradually realizes, though, that each person has some secret that’s about to blast apart the family gathering. And when Philip joins the party — with a new tattoo that horrifies his mother, and hinting at holiday affairs and narcotic nights on the Costa del Sol — all semblance of unity begins to fall apart. Then we learn that, just months before, Frank had saved Philip from drowning by using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation — in the process awakening (to Philip’s horror) homosexual feelings in the young man.

In the next scene, we learn what was lurking behind that first conversation between Laura and Frank, as Philip tries to purge his awakened awkward feelings by roaring off on his first — and fatal — motorbike ride.

And so we come back full circle to the opening scene, with the same two sitting talking, trying to make sense of it all.

Full marks here for Subaru’s handling of this complicated, cynical foreign drama — and especial praise for director/translator Erika Miwa, who studied drama in England and appears to have grasped the material 100 percent.

Despite remarkable performances from the leading players, though, one problem remains. I wonder if it is not too difficult for Japanese audiences to understand the contemporary British context, and to appreciate the nuances underlying much of the dialogue. It’s therefore perhaps doubtful whether the full import of this multilayered play reached the audiences in Bunkyo-ku.

Nonetheless, by broaching so many topics that remain taboo in Japan, this production undoubtedly performs the useful function of exposing Japanese audiences to the realities of a different culture and society. Who knows, perhaps one of those teenagers in the audience, though not understanding the play perfectly, may be sufficiently intrigued to visit Britain and see for themselves. That alone would be a fine consequence of this excellent production.