Her long-term boyfriend’s death spurs concert pianist Charlotte into visiting her eldest daughter Eva, from whom she’s been estranged for seven years. At Eva’s house she also meets Helena, her severely disabled other daughter whom she had confined to a hospital for life, but whose care Eva has taken over.
What follows in “Autumn Sonata,” the piercingly powerful 1978 movie classic directed by Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman and starring Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann and Lena Nyman, is a brutally frank encounter one evening between Charlotte and Eva, in which they pour out their long-suppressed true feelings about each other.
Such drama is a hard act to follow, but that’s the challenge Hirotaka Kumabayashi has set himself after a three-year break following his Mainichi Art Award-winning staging of avant-garde French artist Jean Cocteau’s 1938 play “Les Parents Terrible.”
In this “Autumn Sonata,” Kumabayashi, 36, not only dispenses with almost all sets and props, but also with the side characters who appear in the film — even Helena (though all Bergman’s cast are mentioned by name).
The result is a play for two actresses, the director’s long-time colleague Orie Sato (Charlotte) and the fast-rising young star Hikari Mitsushima (Eva). “I only needed these two to present my play, nothing else,” he declared with clear confidence.
Recently, at their small rehearsal studio in downtown Tokyo, I met the director and Sato, who started out as a young belle of both the small and big screens before shifting to the stage, notably working at TPT (Theatre Project Tokyo) in the 1990s where — with English director David Leveaux and U.S. icon Robert Allan Ackerman — she helped to earn the company many awards.
What inspired this remarkable project?
Kumabayashi (K): Well, though I’ve seen lots of Bergman’s films and love them, I didn’t think there’d be much point just remaking one from two dimensions to three on stage, because they’re already masterpieces.
But then a friend of mine who’s a film director suggested I could make “Autumn Sonata” as a play with Orie Sato and Hikari Mkitsushima. I’d been wanting to work with those two brilliant actresses anyway, and the idea of just having a cast of those two was the biggest reason I got into this.
Sato (S): I’ve worked with Kumabayashi and the translator, Hiromasa Kiuchi, several times, so it went without saying that I wanted to be in this project if they wanted me to be part of it.
Once Kumabayashi sets about staging a work he’s totally obsessed by it and focuses so intently on it. Usually we spend one or, rarely, two months doing the preparation for a few weeks’ performances, but in Kumabayashi and Kiuchi’s team they spend months. This time, for example, the three of us started meeting in January to discuss this play and how to stage it. I am so happy to be in such a rich creative circumstance.
This story is generally regarded as being about an entanglement between a mother and her daughter. How did you view it?
K: I think “the artists’ fate” is a big theme in this drama, though it is also questioning how a woman holds two posts of being an artist and a mother. It also highlights quite important questions for anyone: Art belongs to whom? And why do people need art?
In the play, Charlotte is accused by her daughter of being a bad mother. And yes, she’s obviously caused her family troubles — but on the other hand she has made thousands of people happy through her piano performances. So why shouldn’t she get credit for that, too? So I think this play shows how there are many quite different and competing views in the world, and we can’t evaluate a person just from one side.
If I may ask you, Sato, as you play the artist: What is your understanding of this role?
S: When I first read this play I didn’t think I was a Charlotte-type, self-centered kind of woman — I just though of myself as being a normal, gentle sort of person.
But always, once I start work on a part, my egocentric side starts to come out. Then, even about a month before full rehearsals begin in a studio, I start to shut out all other contacts: I stop answering friends’ calls and mails and switch off from any social life to just concentrate on the play.
Really, I did the same as Charlotte — I more or less sacrificed my whole private life to be a great stage actress. So I understood it when the heroine mused, “if she (her sick younger daughter) would only die …” I know it sounds harsh, but artists sometimes became very cruel to realize their goals.
And as the director, Kumabayashi, how do you think women will regard this play?
K: Not being a woman, I don’t actually understand the relationship between a mother and daughter. Yet, when I’ve talked about “Autumn Sonata” with female friends, many have said, “It’s as if the movie was exactly showing my situation at home.”
I was surprised, because those woman seem to have quite ordinary home lives and yet they were telling me there was some discord between them and their mothers, or between their mother and grandmother. That made me realize that similar things to events in this story are happening everywhere and this isn’t such a special case.
What do you think the future holds for the mother?
S: Though she is in her declining years, I don’t think she’s lost her energy or passion for life — which is why she has such furious arguments with her daughter. Even so, their relationship continues.
I also think this is a story about a genius artist — an especially brilliant pianist. If she were an actress, it would be different. It’s a very competitive and very isolated position being a top pianist, whereas theater is a group activity — and she also happens to be rather eccentric. So this is a story about the suffering of such special maestros.
What makes it especially worthwhile to create a stage version of “Autumn Sonata”?
K: Though it’s impossible to achieve a movie’s level of realism, theater audiences hear actual actors’ voices and witness their live performances right in front of their eyes.
Obviously, to make the most of those characteristics of theater you need to have great actors — and I’m sure we have — so my job is to make the stage as simple as possible and not disturb the two actresses so that they can develop the conflict from the bottom of their hearts.
“Autumn Sonata” runs Oct. 25-Nov. 3 at Theatre East in Tokyo Metropolitan Art Theatre outside JR Ikebukuro Station. For details, call Ticket Pia at 0570-02-9111 or visit pia.jp/t/sonata/. “Les Parents Terrible” runs March 3-16, 2014, at Theatre West in Tokyo Metropolitan Art Theatre, and March 29-30 at Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka. For more details, visit www.geigeki.jp/t/ and www.umegeki.com.