Yukio Ninagawa’s “Electra” has been long-awaited by many people for quite different reasons — as was clear from the diversity of its opening-night audience last Saturday.
On one hand, generally occupying the best seats were phalanxes of eminent folk from the nation’s drama world — critics, directors, kabuki actors and the like — drawn to this renowned director’s new production in part, at least, by its leading lady Shinobu Otake who, at age 46, is among Japan’s undisputed stage elite.
On the other hand, droves of young women — many probably attending a play for the first time — were excitedly lining up for standby tickets to enter this play’s unknown (to them) world of Greek mythology. Their main aim wasn’t, of course, to broaden their classical education — but to be close to the leading man, 22-year-old Junichi Okada, a member of the pop-idol group V6, who was about to make his theatrical debut.
From Ninagawa’s point of view, this production stemmed from his fervent requests to Otake to do a classical Greek play together. As he disclosed in recent interviews, he had urged her to break this fresh ground in what he regards as the prime of her illustrious acting career. Naturally, then, this production of “Electra” was rather more “Otake’s Electra.”
In a strict sense, however, what Ninagawa had chosen was the version of “Electra” by Sophocles (c. 496-406 B.C.), rather than the versions of this mythological revenge drama written by Euripides (480-406 B.C.) or Aeschylus (c. 525-456 B.C.), each of which are quite different in terms of their focus or emphasis.
For example, in Euripides’ play, Electra’s husband is a respectable farmer who never touched his wife out of respect for her position as a noblewoman. Aeschylus’ story, meanwhile, is part of his “Oresteia” trilogy, in which this tale of revenge by a brother (Orestes) and his sister (Electra) is just one link in a long chain of family violence.
In Sophocles’ version, though, the main focus is on Electra’s heaven and hell, and her sudden changes of destiny. On the stage, it begins with Orestes (Junichi Okada), Electra’s younger brother, who returns home with an old retainer to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon. In true Greek-tragic style, however, the killers were his mother Clytaemnestra (Kuriko Namino) and her lover (now her husband) Aegisthus (Yasuyoshi Hara).
Before her beloved brother’s return, the tragic heroine Electra was being tormented by grief over her father’s death — a torment she’s survived only through the power of her intense and ever-growing hatred for her mother, which has given her the will to live and exact revenge. But then, as she longs for Orestes’ return and her mother’s death, she’s told he has been killed in a chariot-race accident and plunges into a black despair.
Soon, though, everything changes and her hopelessness is lifted when she learns Orestes survived after all. Then, soon after their reunion, they fulfill their deadly ambition.
In using Sophocles’ version of “Electra,” it’s clear that Ninagawa’s motive was to emphasize the strong character and unwavering spirit of its heroine — though it must have come as a surprise to him how Okada, in his Orestes, delivers a dramatic power to rival that of Otake’s Electra.
Having worked with Okada in rehearsal, though, Ninagawa comments in a theater-magazine interview that the young debutant has “a brilliant stage sense . . . and is here bringing his charismatic nature as a top star to the stage.”
Indeed, it is hard to believe that this is Okada’s first stage role, though it also appears he needs a bit more basic theater training. In particular, despite his considerable vocal power, it was sometimes hard to hear his lines clearly, as he has not yet mastered the complex art of enunciation on the stage. This was especially apparent in comparison with Otake’s experienced, measured speech technique.
Judging from his comments in the program, it appears Okada harbors no illusions about his new challenge. “As this was my first role,” he admits, “I was conscious of the classical drama aspect too much, and then I overexaggerated my acting in the first two days of rehearsal . . . but after that, I stopped overacting . . . and now I think this Greek tragedy ‘Electra’ is rather more close to a modern play.”
It will certainly be interesting to see how this young talent develops, even during this production.
So now, on to the heart of this play: Otake’s Electra. As I mentioned before, she so excellently portrayed the difficult, strong character of Electra, possessed as she is by such firm concepts of purity, the rights of women and her ideal of manhood — as represented by Orestes. It is to be regretted, however, that sometimes her emotion overflowed to the point where she stood out a little unduly, while one of her great strengths — to portray the quiet madness hidden in human nature — was on that first night left rather undeveloped.
Overall, though, with Ninagawa justifiably concentrating on his two central characters, he clearly opted to pare down other aspects of his directing to keep the production as simple as possible. For example, the stage was quite plain, with its three surrounding metal walls nearly resembling the bare interior of an elevator, with just a bench running round. Also, before the play started, there was an ominous bloodstain on the floor, though this was gone by the time the play began, having done its job of suggesting the tragedy to come.
In addition, the all-women chorus was well-used in its quite important role of representing the nature of womanhood, with each member speaking and moving in a variety of ways indicative of femininity’s many facets.
Finally, I would like to mention a scene with which I was certainly less than satisfied. In this, Electra and Orestes are finally reunited before what they both know will be the moment to fatally settle their family scores. Being pleased to be reunited at such a trying time, they understandably embrace. Here, though, their embrace is decidedly too emotional, and veers quite strongly toward the erotic — in the process threatening to change the meaning of this story completely.
Nonetheless, when I left the theater, outside the stage door there was a long queue for the next day’s standby tickets. Of course, most of those in line were excited young women eager to get more of their idol. But whatever draws them to such a fine production is not the point; that they are there and expanding the audience for top-quality theater in Japan is what really counts.