No dozing in the dark for members of the audience at Yukio Ninagawa’s new production of “Oedipus Rex,” because the director has assigned us a role, too — the public gallery of this artistic Theban court.
From the moment we set foot in the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon, we see ourselves in mirrors that form a backdrop running the full width of the stage. We look as if we might be gathered in a square in front of the king’s palace for an inquiry into the nature of right and wrong. When Oedipus addresses the onstage cast of 16 citizens, often the auditorium lights go up, creating the feeling that it is also we, the audience, he is speaking to. To complete the effect, Ninagawa has many of the actors making their entrances from the back of the auditorium, walking toward King Oedipus as if they were delegates from our committee.
Twice before when he directed “Oedipus Rex,” in 1976 and 1986, Ninagawa used large numbers of supporting actors as citizens — 148 on the first occasion and 85 on the second — and both times his sets were massive. In 1986, he staged his production in the open air at Tsukiji Honganji, in Tokyo, to frame this classic of Greek mythology, using the temple’s stone steps and square to magnificent effect.
This time, in contrast, he has brought the action much closer to the audience, involving us intimately in this tragedy of a young man at the mercy of his fate. “Oedipus Rex,” perhaps the most celebrated drama by Sophocles (496-406 B.C.), unfolds the story of Oedipus, son of Laius, King of Thebes, and his wife Jocasta. At the child’s birth, an oracle prophesies that he will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. An appalled Laius duly commands a servant to take the infant into the mountains and leave him there to die.
However, the doomed bundle is instead found by a shepherd from the neighboring kingdom of Corinth, where he is adopted — as fate would have it — by the king, and grows to princely manhood ignorant of his true identity. Then, sure enough, in a squabble between the rival states, Oedipus — by now a valiant warrior — kills Laius, just as the soothsayer foresaw, and becomes King of Thebes, taking the widowed Jocasta as his wife.
Oedipus’ victory is the beginning of his downfall. Fate gradually reveals clues as to his birth, tidbits of information that his inquiring mind assembles like a mosaic until the full picture lays bare the truth of his circumstances and plunges him into an abyss of grief and despair.
This time around, Ninagawa has cast Mansai Nomura, a young star of kyogen, Japanese traditional comedy theater, to play the tragic hero, and Rei Asami, a leading light of the Japanese stage with a range spanning musicals to Shakespeare, to play his mother-cum-wife, Jocasta.
Nomura plays this noble and sensitive king superbly. Both his posture and sonorous voice, and also his charismatic air combine to make his portrayal of Oedipus remarkable and memorable. His Oedipus is not merely an irresolute young man at the mercy of fate, as so many stagings of this drama would have us believe, but a flawed hero possessed of an intelligence that nonetheless dooms him to repeat fundamental mistakes committed throughout humanity’s bloody history.
To quest in fields unknown, or to maintain a simple morality: That is the dilemma at the heart of Nomura’s reading of his character, and he addresses it with true insight by gradually unfurling his character’s mental conflicts.
Asami impressively complements this landmark performance, playing Jocasta with a real woman’s toughness and a keen sense of actualities. The two principal actors are the crowning glory of this production.
However, Ninagawa doesn’t rely only on the actors, but also offers a thoughtful and timeless interpretation of the drama. He dresses his Theban citizens like Mongolians or Tibetan monks, and infuses his production throughout with central Asian music. This Greek mythology, he is suggesting, is a universal human drama that the audience can participate in and make their own.
Back in 1980 in Japan, and then in 1985 in Europe, Ninagawa’s samurai-style “Macbeth” (dubbed the “Cherry-blossom Macbeth” by Western critics) propelled the director to the heights of international theater fame. His ability to imbue Western drama with an Asian essence — as he did with “Macbeth,” and does here with “Oedipus Rex” — is where his mastery really shines through.