Dramatists explore the essence of language in new play

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

In a small studio just a seagull’s squawk from Tokyo Bay in the Higashi Gotanda district of Shinagawa Ward, a unique play titled “Understandable?” briefly delighted packed houses of baffled Japanese and others recently with its absurd-but-not, “abandoned- in-translation” dialogue devoid of subtitles.

Showcasing the combined talents of local theater company Gotandadan and a French one named Astrov, all the play’s “action” consisted of two sets of three actors sitting in chairs facing the audience. One set, made up of two Japanese women and a Japanese man, collectively played a Japanese man; while the other set comprising two French men and a French woman played a French woman.

A challenge for audiences it surely was. However, in ways perhaps especially pertinent in Japan, “Understandable?” brought out universal issues surrounding culture clashes and the fertile ground for conflict they offer.

(Japanese) Man: “Hello. … Are you a French? … I can’t speak English. Do you believe this? … I … I love you.” (French) Woman: “You must be kidding. We’ve just met here. Why? What? Anyhow, who are you? … It’s not love! You are mad!”

Soon, strangely, this international couple start going out with each other, trying hard to converse in fragmentary English. And even as hopelessly jumbled as their words sometimes become, they plug away and in the process reveal gender- and culture-based discrepancies in feeling and understanding.

Woman: “Did you really understand the film?” Man: “No.” Woman: “But, you are crying now.” Man: “Because I realized there was sad atmosphere there.”

Directed by 37-year-old Jean de Pange, the founder of Metz, northeast France-based Astrov, and written by Gotandadan’s founder, 35-year-old playwright/director Shiro Maeda, “Understandable?” began to germinate after Pange saw a performance by Gotandadan at the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels in 2009.

Talking together with this writer, the two creators explained how that play, “Suteru Tabi” (“Abandon Trip”), was about a middle-aged man taking advantage of his father’s death to look back on his own life — and how it was the absurd ways he tried to come to terms with his traumatic past that tickled the French man’s fancy.

“I just went to see Gotandadan’s play on spec, and I was completely fascinated how they acted like children would — and I mean that in a good way,” Pange said. “It was as if they were just freely opening up their world without worrying what the audience might think. I’d never seen such theater in Europe before.”

After that, he contacted Gotandadan to see if they’d be interested in a collaboration project with Astrov. They were, so the next year Pange came to Japan and, as Maeda recalls, it was their meetings and linguistic adventures then that inspired him to write their joint production, “Understandable?”

“I met Jean at a cafe in Shinjuku and we had to communicate through an interpreter and also in our broken English,” Maeda explained. “Inevitably, it all took so long — and afterward I still doubted whether he really understood what I’d said. It was a very, ahem, interesting experience.

“Nonetheless, that encounter made me wonder what it takes for people to really understand each other — and what is the role of language. That gave me the idea for a play in which Japanese, French and broken English were mingled, and mangled — and to stage it so the audience, like the actors and any stranger in a strange land, had to work it all out for themselves.”

But whoops: When Pange received Maeda’s play, he said he thought, “This guy is crazy!” Then he confessed it took him almost a year to understand it — or at least to think he had, he added, as both men laughed.

In particular, he said it was the idea of three people acting each character that had thrown him. “I just couldn’t imagine it working well,” he said.

Woman: “It doesn’t only depend on imagination. You need reasoning power and rule of thumb, for instance.” Man: “I don’t understand.” Woman: “What about?” Man: “About language.”

When he’d got over his shock, though, Pange said he started to feel really excited about directing such an unknown quantity — and a bit scared, too, despite countless e-mails between the men as the work evolved.

“All that was exciting, but it was hard,” Maeda recalled. “We were both using interpreters, but it was difficult to explain minute nuances I really wanted to share with Jean. At times I was so frustrated and just wished he was Japanese and could speak in Japanese. So in terms of both creation and content, language and cultural divides were key to our project.”

Asked why he settled on three actors to play each role, Maeda said that a “team battle” made better culture-clash sense to him than just showing an individual couple trying to relate. Strangely, his approach was validated in rehearsals, when one or the other country’s team would often claim their (fictional) way was better than the other’s.

“How to go forward from that kind of conflict stage to an agreement stage, that was interesting to see,” Maeda remarked.

“What happened there and how it was resolved through patient but lively exchanges could probably apply to the current argument between China and Japan about the Senkaku Islands, for example,” the playwright noted.

“Probably, each side’s opinions are valid, but their statements are completely conflicting. To present such situations was one of the main aims of this work.”

The key to this, Maeda said, was that “though the two sides never accepted the other entirely, they had to continue to do acting together.” Man: “Then, how much time do people need to love somebody?” Woman: “You mean for me?” Man: “No, human’s average time.”

To prepare for the play’s five-day Tokyo “season,” Pange said he and the three French actors spent each day, every day, for a month in rehearsals with their Japanese counterparts, working out myriad misunderstandings on the way to realizing “Understandable?”

So, had the French man’s understanding of Japaneseness and the Japanese improved?

“I still don’t understand lots about the Japanese,” he said with a laugh. “For instance, we French are generally edgy and talkative and laugh a lot more than Japanese people. Yet though the Japanese are normally quiet, they can suddenly let off massive energy.

“I was so fascinated when I saw how the Japanese people in our audiences laughed loudly and freely even though they had looked so serious and even sad in the lobby before it started. It seems to me they are more concentrated on seeing a play than French audiences, and that’s a great pleasure for theater creators like me.”

Maeda immediately went a step further, saying how he hoped he could create a relaxing space for audiences before the show in the way European theaters usually have bars open for 30 minutes to an hour before curtain-up. In Japan, if they have bars at all, they’re not opened until the interval if there is one. “But I realize it will take time to change theater culture in Japan to accept this,” he said.

Woman: “Don’t say love me so easily.” Man: “I am saying it in difficult way.” Woman: “But, you said so immediately after we met.” Man: “Because I loved you immediately after I met you.”

If there’s even a gulf to bridge regarding pre-show drinks, did these two creators think it was ever possible for different nationalities to overcome their language barriers and really communicate?

Pange answered: “This is why Shiro’s play was absolutely brilliant in the way it made the point clearly that people need to have language in common. Sometimes there may seem to be different outlooks regarding culture, history, economics or religion or whatever — but in the end “Understandable?” suggests the biggest problem is language.

“I used live in Belgium, and Belgium is completely crazy because though it’s one country and there’s no serious economic or religious problems there, many people in the two principal communities — one French-speaking, the other Dutch-speaking — want to separate due to that. This shows how language difference can be a crucial factor in non-communication.”

For his part, regarding people’s ability to overcome language barriers, Maeda stayed closer to home.

“Even among Japanese people who all speak the same language, sometimes there are arguments and conflictions,” he pointed out. “So if we define ‘understanding’ as knowing exactly what someone else said, then if someone’s mastered a foreign language it could be said they understand people who speak that language.

“However, it’s a real pain that even among family relations, sometimes they don’t ‘understand’ each other. So, perhaps this shows that nobody can really understand others anyway.”

But as to whether this possibly unbridgeable gulf really matters in practice between human beings, Maeda continued his analysis, saying: “In this play the French womand and the Japanese man never reach a point of truly understanding each other. Yet in the end they hug each other strongly out of sexual desire (laughs). Let’s think about this.”

Man: “I can’t speak perfectly, but I can touch you, anyway.” Woman: “Of course.” Man: “I love you.” Woman (under her breath): “I can’t believe that; love is just a word.”

Maeda added that although the Japanese actors can’t wholly understand Pange, they trust and respect him as a director. “That greatly improved their mutual relationship, and it’s exactly how understandings between people can advance,” he said.

Picking up on this enthusiastically, Pange smiled as he added, “Once the actors were eating and drinking together after the tension of a rehearsal, they immediately began to talk in an animated way in their broken English without any problems. They naturally and unconsciously opened their minds to each other. Probably there’s a key hint there as to how to communicate smoothly.”

Certainly, Gotandadan are now eagerly anticipating an upcoming trip to Europe to spread their “Suteru Tabi” message to audiences there again.

Woman: “What is love?” Man (pointing to his chest): “This is love!” Woman: “Chest?” Man: “Heart!!”

“Suteru Tabi” (“Abandon Trip”) is playing three times from Oct. 23-24 (with either French, German or Hungarian subtitles) at Atelier Helicopter, a 7-min. walk from JR Osaki Station. It then tours Switzerland, Hungary and France. “Understandable?” tours in France and Luxembourg from Nov. 11-27. For details, visit Gotandadan at www.uranus.dti.ne.jp/~gotannda/.