Two eagerly anticipated German-directed productions of Shakespeare arrived in Tokyo last week, each the product of its director’s extensive experience and deep deliberation on the play’s contemporary relevance, and each given a polished reinterpretation as a result.
While German drama was among the most influential of the 20th century, thanks in no small part to the towering figure of Bertolt Brecht, it has not been presented so often in Japan. To experience these two productions is to ask why.
The first to open, on Sept. 7, was “Hamlet” at the New National Theatre in Shinjuku, with Peter Stein directing. Born in 1937, Stein built his reputation with contemporary European drama during the 1970s and ’80 as the artistic director of the Schaubuhne Theater in West Berlin. He resigned from the Schaubuhne in the mid’-80s, but continued working as a guest director while also turning his attention to opera and collaborations with Russian dramatists.
In 1993 he caused a sensation with his radical, grand-scale production of Aeschylus’ fifth-century B.C. tragedy “Oresteia,” staged in Moscow with a Russian cast. This “Hamlet” uses many of the same cast and crew members, with thirtysomething human dynamo Evgeny Mironov as the Prince of Denmark. Stein believes that Mironov, who played Orestes in “Oresteia,” is his “ideal and only Hamlet.”
And Mironov and Stein together give us a Hamlet unlike any other. This production begins with the solemn tolling of a bell, as if summoning the young, wise prince to fulfill his onerous duty: to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle Claudius, his adored mother’s new husband, and in doing so to go against his own nature to purify this world of fraud and scheming.
Mironov’s prince is up to the task. Incisive, active and artistic, he is far from the naive, delicate young man with a mother-complex that many directors portray on stage. He moves swiftly and athletically, his innate love of life expressing itself in energetic fencing and a love of music — he picks up a saxophone, and its sound is a blast of human warmth amid the gloom of the conspiring Danish court. It’s obvious that this young man is motivated by a sincere passion to improve the lives of those around him — a passion that, tragically, ends in death not only for his mother and Claudius, but for himself as well.
Stein’s Hamlet concentrates, then, on the conflict between youth’s life-loving ambition — though this sometimes seems ridiculous to “commonsensical” adults — and Hamlet’s active resistance to corrupt, established society. For example, Stein’s translation of “To be or not to be” renders its dilemma as “to take action or, by doing nothing, to stay as we are.” This prince is alive to the subjectivity that governs notions of right and wrong.
Other characters, too, are crisply reinterpreted. Even Ophelia is less a spurned innocent, the victim of others, than an immature girl whose dependent nature leads directly to her death.
Stein sends a clear message about the dire consequences of plots and dissembling — a message with relevance for the modern world, although the look of this production is Scandinavian and medieval. In this director’s sharp reading of the play, what happens onstage is entirely the consequence of people’s actions — not the working out of a preordained tragedy. With the play staged in the round and actors roaming the whole auditorium, not simply the simple, black wooden stage, the audience, too, is drawn into this complex moral universe.
At the Theater Cocoon, Sept. 10-15, meanwhile, the Berliner Ensemble was treating audiences to “Richard II” directed by Claus Peymann, who worked with Stein at the Schaubuhne Theater for a year in the early ’70s. Peymann was then artistic director at several other German theaters, in Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Bochum, before moving to Vienna where he was artistic director of the Burg Theater-based Austrian National Theater from 1986-99. During his tenure there, he was known as a radical reformer who invigorated the conservative Austrian arts scene.
After 13 challenging years at the Burg, Peymann moved back to his homeland — reunited in 1989 — to lead the Berliner Ensemble. Founded by Brecht in 1949 and based in the former East Berlin, the ensemble looked to Peymann to take up the reins following the death of its renowned leader Heine Muller in 1995. For his debut production, Peymann created this “Richard II” — which played to huge acclaim.
Using Thomas Brasch’s radical, fresh translation that cuts the story by almost half, the scenes in this version of “Richard II” are also reordered to create a simplified, more tightly focused political drama. The result is Peymann’s “Richard II,” not Shakespeare’s.
Before the curtain went up at the Cocoon, theatergoers could be heard talking in German and English — an indication of the ensemble’s international standing. Clearly audience expectations for these heirs of Brecht were running high.
They weren’t disappointed. Techniques pioneered by the director were to the fore. These included many effects characteristic of Brecht’s so-called Theater of Alienation, ranging from the white-faced, nohlike makeup worn by the actors to details of staging, such as a cardboard castle wall on which the king’s friend Aumerle scrawls “R.II forever” graffiti.
In line with the simplification of the story to a political scramble for power, the stage, too, is simplified — a sudden blackout at the start signals the strong symbolic contrast of black and white used throughout to separate Bolingbroke’s and Richard’s sides. In modifying Shakespeare’s play so extensively, Peymann removes its specific English historical context and brings out its relevance to issues affecting our own lives.
“I chose ‘Richard II,’ because I was so interested in the theme of this play — that is, a change of political system,” Peymann said when interviewed by Japanese theater magazine Serifu no Jidai. “Because of Richard II’s bad administration, he was replaced by Henry Bolingbroke, but once Bolingbroke took the position of power he started to repeat Richard’s mistakes. Richard, on the other hand, found his identity in the process of losing his position.” Peymann’s words challenge us to think of shifts of power in our modern world — in Afghanistan, racked by numerous changes of political control, or in Japan, its social decay due, perhaps, to one political party being in power too long. If Stein’s production is about the games and deceptions that people practice on each other (and on themselves), Peymann’s “Richard II” is about the trap of playing political power games.
Both productions are richly cross-cultural. Stein is a German director staging an English play with a Russian cast; Peymann pits his country’s former East and West against each other with West German Michael Maertens as Richard II (employing the acting method devised by Russian Constantin Stanislavski) opposite a Brechtian-style Bolingbroke from East German Veit Schubert.
By daring to tread where more reverential directors fear to, these German directors breathe new life into these two iconic plays. It’s a trick not easily pulled off; to do so requires a profound understanding of Shakespeare allied to consummate dramatic skill. It’s to be hoped audiences rise to the challenge of productions such as these. There is not only entertainment to be found in these lively stagings, but also enlightenment in their fresh approaches to problems still facing us. Why not, for example, a dialectical resolution of 9/11 and its aftermath, rather than the simplistic approach and power games that were Richard II’s — and Hamlet’s — undoing?