It was a difficult delivery. The fruit of the union between actor/director Simon McBurney, founder of London-based Complicite (formerly Thea^tre de Complicite), and a Japanese cast in Tokyo had been long-awaited, but even so it kept everyone guessing past the expected arrival time.
Before the world premiere of “The Elephant Vanishes” at Setagaya Public Theater (SEPT) May 23, McBurney made a short speech from the stage apologizing for the one-hour delay. It was, he said, because the coming performance would be the first complete run-through that even he, the director, had seen. He and the cast had been working on the piece up to the very moment he stepped on stage, he said.
“Indeed, the performance will be completed only with the audience,” he added. “So please prepare yourselves to participate in this production tonight, [because] drama is not a marketing product, it’s an organic thing.”
So it was that I was there at the birth of this production, and became complicitee in its first hesitant steps.
McBurney’s involvement with Japanese theater dates back to 1998, when he brought his acclaimed play “The Street of Crocodiles,” based on stories by the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, to SEPT.
“The Street of Crocodiles” was performed by the European cast of the original production in London’s West End, but since then McBurney has conducted workshops with Japanese actors in both Tokyo and London. It is with these actors, in workshops begun in London in April, that McBurney developed the current production.
For his Japanese firstborn, McBurney selected material from “The Elephant Vanishes,” a mid-1980s collection of short stories by the renowned writer Haruki Murakami, whose Japanese translation of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in Rye” was published in April.
As the director told the theater magazine Replique, he had first wanted to stage a production based on stories by the novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), but during the London workshops he realized that Tanizaki’s world was remote from the experiences of his young Japanese actors. So they opted for Murakami, whose work cleverly describes contemporary Japanese society.
Specifically, McBurney — who has been hard at work in Tokyo for the past month — fashioned this two-hour drama from three of Murakami’s short stories, “The Elephant Vanishes,” “The Second Bakery Attack” and “Sleep,” wresting from them a quietly powerful exploration of distortion, intimacy and solitude in modern Japanese life.
In the title-story segment, a kitchen-unit salesman comes across a newspaper article about an elephant that has “gone missing,” along with its keeper, from the little elephant house in his suburban Tokyo town. This surreal event has a disturbing effect on the salesman, who had been in the habit of going to watch the elephant and its keeper, unseen, from a hillside overlooking the enclosure.
The man’s favorite sales (and life) mantra — “The most important point is unity. Unity of design, unity of color, unity of function: This is what today’s kitchen needs above all else” — is repeated several times through the play, becoming an increasingly panicked back-beat to his loosening hold on reality as he is gradually unbalanced by the absurd yet inexplicable matter of this missing pachyderm that’s left behind its locked shackle, locked cage and no keeper.
Similarly, in the play’s sketches from “The Second Bakery Attack,” there’s a disquieting normality about the way a newly married couple get to know each other through living out a shared fantasy to stage an attack on a McDonald’s fast-food outlet.
Then, in the third tranche of sketches (all three strands interweave through the whole production) a housewife suffering the onset of middle-aged ennui adopts the undramatic but quietly crazy strategy of refusing to sleep, in an attempt to combat her fear of aging and death and to shake up her routine.
Though based on Murakami’s works, the vanishing elephant created here is a very different beast from the author’s: The stories here are more focused than Murakami’s originals, and are multipersonal in their telling (the author’s versions are first-person narrations).
The process of fashioning these episodes in McBurney’s improvisatory workshops yielded not only some specific sketches of life in modern Japan, but also something hidden and fragile in Japanese society. Though “unity” may appear to be the watchword of safe, well-organized and perpetually scheduled Tokyo life, here the veil of that illusion is pulled ever so subtly off, revealing the anxieties and vulnerabilities that lie beneath.
At the beginning, all we see on stage is a white refrigerator. Then, seamlessly, a few chairs, a double bed, a Japanese sliding door and a couple of TVs are added to the set. However, nothing is quite what it seems. The actors use these few objects in all kinds of ways, so that a pillow becomes dough that is made into bread, and the double bed doubles as a counter at McDonald’s.
The stage’s backdrop, too, together with the sliding door and the TVs, transform into screens displaying scenes of Tokyo, such as an empty expressway in the middle of the night, or a chaos of neon signs. These, intercut with images of the sea, storms and the actors themselves, become windows into the characters’ psychology.
Describing the effect of all these changing images — along with sets that come and go and actors who move restlessly about, not only in all directions, but seemingly all dimensions — is rather difficult. During “The Second Bakery Attack,” for instance, one character is sometimes suspended in the air and at other times walks up the refrigerator as if the plane parallel to the ground were in fact the norm.
At the close, the characters and the stage all disappear, without fanfare, into darkness. Our memories are left clinging onto fading images of what we have seen, our imaginations brooding on their meaning. Then suddenly, a final burst of bright light directed into the auditorium jolts the audience from its penumbrous contemplation before utter darkness descends once more.
It’s as if to say: “The excursion of the imagination is over; you have returned to real life; now continue the story where we left off.”
That preview night — even with the last-minute delay — the actors seemed to be not 100 percent clear as to where that imaginary excursion led. Though they did well, their nervousness was palpable. However, when I saw the play again a few days later, their acting had grown greatly in confidence and they were clearly getting to grips with this disturbingly prismatic creation.
As the actors further develop this piece and begin to explore the freedom of their surreal roles, “The Elephant Vanishes” will only become even more interesting as the belated newborn takes more confident steps. As McBurney said, “Drama is an organic thing” — and this play will just grow and grow.