England’s War of the Roses is being fought in modern-day Tokyo

by Nobuko Tanaka

Back in July, at a New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) press conference to herald this autumn’s special staging of William Shakespeare’s nine-hour-long “Henry VI” trilogy, Hitoshi Uyama, 56, its director, declared his intention to go beneath and beyond the blood, guts and gore of the famous epic set during the War of the Roses, England’s 15th-century civil war between the House of Lancaster (red rose) and the House of York (white rose).

In the lobby of the theater, surrounded by members of his cast, Uyama, also the NNTT’s artistic director, said: “Rather than doing a deadly serious, magnificent historical play, I wanted to bring out the unchanging folly of our human nature.

“We set out to derive a little bright wisdom for our future from these stupid but important historic struggles.” And to help spread that wisdom, he announced plans to “open theater to everybody” through a series of lectures and exhibitions during the production’s monthlong run.

Also present at that midsummer press conference was the plays’ renowned translator, 78-year-old literature scholar Yushi Odashima, who said, “Though I have translated all of Shakespeare’s plays, until now I have only had one chance to see this ‘Henry VI’ trilogy staged in Japan. It really is a rare phenomenon — like seeing a total solar eclipse.”

“I remember clearly when I translated the play that I was just exhausted and didn’t understand its attraction,” Odashima continued. “But after I heard my translation in a 1981 performance by The Shakespeare Theatre in Tokyo, I was enthralled at how the play brilliantly portrays the fundamental currents in English history through each of its characters. It’s definitely a must-see play, and this is the first chance to do so in Japan since 1981.”

The venerable translator then went on to note there have been few recent stagings of the trilogy, one of which was a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) at Stratford-upon-Avon, England, which was part of a project to present all eight of Shakespeare’s Plantagenet-history plays (“Henry VI” and “Richard III,” along with “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Parts I and II” and “Henry V”) in 2006-08 under the direction of Michael Boyd, the RSC’s artistic director. Despite the length of the “Henry VI” trilogy, this staging, the only recent one of its kind before the NNTT production, was greeted with huge acclaim. It now only remains to be seen if this major Tokyo staging will live up to the RSC’s benchmark 21st-century production.

I met Uyama and Odashima again recently, in a rehearsal room at the NNTT, to hear their last hurrahs before the major work’s long-awaited curtainup on Oct. 27.

Hitoshi Uyama: I’ve just come back from a research trip to northern England, to Yorkshire and Lancashire, and also to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in the so-called Heart of England. I went there with the stage designer Jiro Shima, and in the North we saw empty ancient battlefields and rolling landscapes stretching as far as you could see. There, I imagined how what must have been a wilderness in the 15th century has changed over the centuries, about the events, history and people who have made it what it is. Drawn from that impression of the moors, we created a hilly stage on which we piled all kinds of broken carts and relics.

This is a very multilayered play: A winner one day could be a loser the next and the history is viewed from many different standpoints, whether the king’s or a beggar’s or others’. At every turn, “Henry VI” is constantly changing — for example, from harsh and gentle, tragic and funny. I want audiences to be wide-eyed with surprise every five minutes — as I promised in the publicity. (laughs)

In practice, however, every line is examined very carefully during rehearsals. That’s all we can do, I believe, to give this trilogy our very best shot.

Yushi Odashima: The character of Henry VI is not strong like that of Richard III, so the actor needs to portray a rather charismatic, centripetal force as the tragic hero is pulled this way and that by all the schemers around him. Kenji Urai, who plays Henry VI, really seems to embody that wavering monarch and I think he brings a tremendous reality to this production.

Although the play is immersed in English history, at the same time it magnificently depicts the cycle of life and death, including repeated vendettas and killings within families and so on. I really hope it will inspire the audience to one day see its successive play, “Richard III.”

Uyama: Why stage “Henry VI” now, in today’s Tokyo? Well, one strong reason is that though there are few female roles in this play, they are all strong roles of women who make achievements in the men’s world despite the difficulties and suffering they face. That makes me think that this play relates to society today.

In fact, as I actually wrote in a press release, I believe we can find Wars of the Roses in everyday life. A small ruckus on a crowded train, a complicated relationship in a company or a school, or long-running problems in a family — any of these kinds of small problems can lead to bigger ones.

That’s true as well of other historical events like World War II or the Trojan Wars. In fact, much of human history involves fighting, and it happens everywhere in the world, over both trifling matters and national issues.

Ultimately, as my last piece for the NNTT [Uyama leaves his post as artistic director next year], I want audiences to walk away from this masterpiece, not with a sense of aggressiveness but with the memory of an exciting, thought-provoking performance.

“Henry VI” runs till Nov. 23 at the New National Theatre Tokyo, a 2-minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. For more details of performances, lectures and exhibitions, call the NNTT at (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.atre.jp/henry/ Nobuko Tanaka’s theater blog (in Japanese) is at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com