Some timely lessons from ‘Richard III’

by Nobuko Tanaka

In this column, the curtain rose on 2003 with a new production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” directed by Yukio Ninagawa. Now, the final curtain of the year comes down here with another blockbuster from Japan’s international-drama standard-bearer — his version of Shakespeare’s “The Life and Death of King Richard III.” In between, the indefatigable phenomenon that is 68-year-old Ninagawa has also staged acclaimed new productions of the Bard’s “Pericles” and “Hamlet,” as well as one of the Greek classics, “Electra.”

So this time, the director is surely to be excused this reprise of his visually stunning and imaginative “King Richard III,” which debuted in 1999 in his ongoing project with the Saitama Arts Center to produce all of Shakespeare’s plays. Then, as now, he cast the charismatic Masachika Ichimura in the starring role.

At the Nissei Theater, as the play begins, the audience is confronted with a three-story construction — part cage, part castle it seems — that will sometimes represent the Tower of London, open out into ramparts as the tale unfolds, or be shielded in parts by mirrors to create “rooms” on stage. A “horse” then wanders in, canters around a bit — and drops dead. Next, from high above, a dead horse, other animal parts and garbage rain down, crashing thunderously on stage. Then a misshapen medieval knight we’ll soon know as Richard strides out, looks the audience in the eye, and chillingly declaims that famous line: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

So, we’re getting a very Ninagawa take on Shakespeare’s view of 15th-century English history — specifically, events at the climax of the Wars of the Roses, when the House of Lancaster, with a red-rose emblem, and the House of York, whose emblem was a white rose, vied for the throne of England.

Though he was disfigured from birth with a limp and hunchback, no one appears to have been keener on winning the crown than Richard, when he was Duke of Gloucester. So he does, but in his doomed attempt to suppress all rivals, this upholder of the white-rose cause is normally presented as a murderous monster. This he likely was, having not only confined his brother George, Duke of Clarence, in a cell in the Tower of London, he is also believed to have had two young nephews killed there — while all the time plotting with the likes of Lady Anne (whose husband’s and father’s fates he’d sealed) and Elizabeth, queen of his brother, King Edward IV.

Here, however, we see 54-year-old Ichimura masterfully teasing out a character at once cruel but complex in his humanity, with both traits owing a lot to deformed Richard’s low self-image and effective rejection by his mother.

Writing in the program, Ichimura describes how he was asked by Ninagawa to act Richard as “devilish cool and naughty, but also as a cute and sexy person in the beginning.”

Though the female leads here act marvelously, they — including an especially good Mari Natsuki as Elizabeth — are a little overshadowed as it is Richard’s many sides that command the audience’s attention. In so doing, this production also clearly poses the question of whether Richard really was an evil monster, or just a weak man on a course he couldn’t resist.

Using the auditorium in his trademark way, with actors coming and going through the aisles, Ninagawa here also often has his players address the audience — involving them so much, in fact, that one speech in which King Richard appeals to ordinary citizens for support when he ascends the throne actually had the house clapping in support.

As well, it is perhaps no coincidence there have been many productions of the play in Japan this year, since we don’t have to look far in the wider world to find its core issues reflected — whether in accounts of killers supposedly abused or rejected in their formative years, or global conflicts such as in the Middle East and Iraq, where claims to moral authority must rely heavily on selective memory, and where little, it seems, is as it seems.

Finally, though, our twisted ruler gets his comeuppance and is killed in battle by Lancastrian forces under Henry, the Earl of Richmond. Then, in a quite stunning finale, as Henry — who is about to become King Henry VII — stands amid the detrius of battle and proclaims his victory speech beginning with that loaded line, “Inter their bodies as becomes their births,” a horse appears, moves around, then drops dead. Then from on high “bodies” crash down on the stage, drowning out the sound of the victor’s words . . .

“King Richard III” runs till Dec. 28 at The Nissei Theatre, a 2-minute walk from Hibiya subway station on the Hibiya, Chiyoda and Toei Mita lines; tickets 5,000 yen to 10,000 yen. It then moves to Niigata, Osaka and Kita Kyushu till Feb 1. For more details, call Hori pro Ticket center at (03) 3490- 4949 or visit www.horipro.co.jp

Since Yukio Ninagawa swung back for Japan the heavy gate to the British theater world in 1985 with his “Ninagawa Macbeth,” many other dramatists from these shores have crossed the Rubicon toward to the unknown Western world. Nonetheless, it remains a huge challenge to export drama that’s generally been created by Japanese, in Japanese and for Japanese.

It was a challenge, however, that Team Happou B-Zin, a company founded in 1992 by graduates of Nihon University’s drama department, was eager to rise to when it planned to take “Trans Home” — in English — to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In the end, financial problems nixed that ambition, though the group is hopeful of realizing it next year.

First performed in 1996, “Trans Home” was rewritten and redirected by the company founder, Tsuyoshi Kida, to create an “international version” for its Edinburgh airing that he hoped would allow Westerners to enjoy it in the way they like manga or anime.

So what we first set eyes on as the curtains open is a stage proclaiming a sense of the fantastical world of Japanese animation. In this transformed home, for example, the family of the hero (acted by Kida), who all died in a plane crash, have returned to appear as robotlike furniture, fridges, TVs and so on. Then, with ne’er a pause to dwell on irrelevant implausibility, the thrust of the play develops through cartoony jokes into an examination of the difficulty of maintaining close interpersonal relationships.

Intensive English-language study by the cast ensures the English version of this one-hour work succeeds well — as does the Japanese version they stage afterward for those interested in making a comparison. However, “Trans Home,” perhaps unwittingly, poses a big question to the Japanese drama world: Is the best way to present Japanese plays overseas to translate them into that audience’s language?

Specifically, when wordplay, intonation and verbal jokes are integral to a production — as often they are — then following the dialogue by reading surtitles can make meanings so concrete as to confuse or distract the audience.

So what are the alternatives — to use expressively voiced cassette recordings, or to write the work in the foreign language in the first place? The jury’s still out.

In the meantime, if the company does make it to Edinburgh, it will be good for such young innovators on the Japanese drama scene to experience for themselves cultural differences that may help in their laudable quest.