Tokyo’s ‘fayrest that ever was’

The days of the good old Globe recalled as it completes its quarter-century.

by Stuart Varnam-Atkin

Scene 1: Late evening, Sept. 23, 1990, at the tiny Greek amphitheater, Shin-Okubo, Tokyo

‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more … ”

Dozens of actors, actresses, staff, and hangers-on are sitting on the steps, drinks in hand, watching a distinguished British actor perform his Shakespearian party piece from “Henry V,” imitating Laurence Olivier’s voice from the 1944 movie version of “Richard III.”

It’s unique, brilliant … but unfortunately, video-recording mobile phones haven’t yet been invented. A few minutes later, the police arrive; someone in the tower block looming above has complained about the noise. The party reluctantly squeezes back into the adjacent Globe Tavern …

Who was the actor? Now known everywhere as Gandalf in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, it was Ian McKellen, one year before he was knighted. In the exuberant crowd that night were others who would become known the world over, such as Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lecter), Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes,” 2009) and David Bradley (Argus Filch in the “Harry Potter” series).

They were celebrating the end of the Royal National Theatre’s run of “Richard III” and “King Lear,” which had included many stunning moments.

One was the perfectionist McKellen, as the invalid King Richard, dressing himself in a military jacket using just his left hand — but precisely in synch with his delivery of a soliloquy. Another was the night when Cox, a very different kind of actor who performs on inspiration rather than McKellen-style exactitude — and who at the time was weak from a fruit diet — arrived back from a public bathhouse just in time to be rolled on as King Lear in a wheelchair in Scene 1. Then, after he was trundled off the stage, there was an almighty crash in the wings as he collapsed into a lighting control box. Fortunately, Lear doesn’t appear again until Scene 4, which gave Cox time to recover.

The venue for these golden theatrical moments was the Panasonic Tokyo Globe Theatre in Shin-Okubo, the city’s very own version of London’s second Globe Theatre (1614-44), described in its day as “the fayrest that ever was” — though on Wenceslaus Hollar’s fine 1647 engraving, “Long View of London from Bankside,” it is mislabeled as a “Beere bayting h” (Bear-baiting house).

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Tokyo Globe’s opening in 1988. The reconstruction of the first Globe Theatre in London was a vision of long-time U.K.-resident American film director and actor Sam Wanamaker that took 27 years to finally realize in 1997 — four years after his death. Why did a similar project take off in Tokyo in the early 1980s and come to fruition so fast?

Scene 2: February 1988, at the Tokyo Globe construction site

Translator Yoko Toyozaki and myself, hard hats on heads, are being taken on a tour of the nearly completed theater by Hiroshi Takahagi (now vice-director at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre). We are shown the high-tech lighting system and the projecting stage with simple Jacobean-style trap-doors and a kabuki-style seri (floor-lift mechanism) descending down beneath the stage to what in the Bard’s time was termed “Hell.” We visit the large soundproof rehearsal room with ballet barres and mirrors, and try out the gallery seats. Then we’re introduced to affable Seiya Tamura, the father of the scheme.

Standing beside a model of the complex, he waxes lyrical about 17th-century English theater and modern city development. He tells us that the Globe came about through a process of elimination. Launched in 1983, the Shinjuku-Nishitoyama Development Project between Shin-Okubo and Takada- nobaba stations involved a shift from the usual public-sector planning to private-sector control via a consortium of 66 real-estate companies.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government had set out guidelines for the number of housing units, the height limit (83 meters) and the area to be left as empty space (75 percent) — and it had also insisted on the construction of a “cultural facility.” Various possibilities came to mind, including a concert hall, but that was ruled out as the site is right beside two busy railway lines.

“Eventually, we decided to go back to the roots of theater, in particular Greek amphitheaters and the Shakespearean period,” Tamura explains. “So, with the first Globe project already in existence in London, we turned our attention to the second Globe.”

They called in renowned architect Arata Isozaki (Art Tower Mito; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Olympic Sports Hall, Barcelona). With his usual flair, he came up with eclectic proposals for all that empty space: an Italianesque piazza; a small open-air Greek amphitheater; and a modern — and pink — version of the original Globe, following its dimensions and layout as far as they are known, but roofed over and designed to seat 700 people in comfort.

“Even our ticket policy is unusual,” says Tamura. “To encourage theatergoers to experiment with different viewing angles, all seats will be ¥5,000. We’ll begin without a resident troupe, and with the catchphrase ‘Shakespeare and before, Beckett and after.’ ”

The theater was constructed in no time at all. It opened on April 8, 1988, with large cauldron torches burning outside and a true blockbuster inside: “The Wars of the Roses” (comprising “Richard II,” “Henry IV [Parts I & II],” “Henry V,” “Henry VI [Parts I, II & III compressed into two]” and “Richard III”), the English Shakespeare Company’s seven-play compendium directed by Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington.

Scene 3: A Sunday evening, April 1988, Tokyo Globe. A standing ovation is in progress.

Audience and performers alike have been through a rare experience: Shakespeare’s history cycle courtesy of the ESC, staged over one weekend by just 25 actors and actresses; 20 hours of performance, with the design and the sets gradually modernizing as the cycle progressed.

It has just ended with an unforgettable timeslip sequence. After the infamous “A horse, a horse … ” speech, King Richard III (Andrew Jarvis), who began the play sat at a computer, fought to his death in slow motion to Samuel Barber’s evocative “Adagio for Strings” while regaled in full medieval armor. Then the victorious Richmond (Charles Dale) addressed the final speech to TV cameras. Magical theater to end an epic production.

Those of us who have spent the weekend watching these robust players, and drinking with them each night, feel as exhausted and yet also as stimulated as they seem to be. We feel like dear friends. As we quaff in the Globe Tavern later, John Castle (“Man of La Mancha,” “Robocop III” etc.) comments, “This theater’s the best place in which I have ever played Shakespeare.”

At lunchtime on Saturday, after the first of the day’s three plays, I had run into two veteran actors beside a Shin-Okubo vending machine, cans of beer in hand. “How on earth do you manage to keep going?” I asked.

“Oh, with a little help from refreshment like this. You take it one scene at a time. You go off stage, check the scene list for your next appearance, change costumes, then walk out and do it,” one of them replied. “It’s probably more of an ordeal for the audience!”

The Globe had started with a bang, and the following months provided a cornucopia of thrills for Tokyo’s theatergoers: RSC text workshops and a Shakespearean anthology; Antonio Salieri’s 1799 opera “Falstaff: ossia Le tre burle” (after “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” with Falstaff played by both Seiichiroh Satoh and Susumu Matsumoto); the Royal National Theatre’s “Cymbeline” (Tony Church as Cymbeline), “The Winter’s Tale” (Tim Piggott-Smith as Leontes) and “The Tempest” (Michael Bryant as Prospero) — all directed by Sir Peter Hall; and the Royal Dramatic Theatre Company of Sweden’s “Hamlet” (with Peter Stormare in the title role) and August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” (Marie Goranzon in the title role) — both directed by the legendary Ingmar Bergman. Then there came various Japanese troupes, including the Shakespeare Theatre Group founded and directed by Norio Deguchi, Shiki and Subaru as well as the Oxford University Dramatic Society.

As the years passed, there would be many other Global treats: the launch of Jeremy Northam’s career as Hamlet in 1989, a role he had famously had to take over mid-performance as understudy for an ailing Daniel Day-Lewis; Emma Thompson as the Fool in “King Lear” (1990); Yasunari Takahashi’s kyōgen version of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (1991); concerts by the Michael Nyman Band (1994) and The Chieftains with Loreena McKennitt (1995); Sir Antony Sher in the title role of “Macbeth” in 2000; etc., etc.

And as the famous and yet-to-be-famous came, performed and impressed, they all wrote their names and messages on the white plaster walls of the Globe Tavern.

But during the 1990s, the dizzy plethora of visiting foreign troupes gradually dwindled as Japan’s economic bubble fizzled. In 1998, the theater’s name consequently lost its Panasonic prefix, before it closed entirely for two years from 2002. It reopened in 2004 under the management of the Johnny’s Production Company. The ambitious aim of “Shakespeare and before, Beckett and after” then gave way to a bevy of stage entertainments more fitting to a general Japanese audience.

Epilogue. December 2013 in Shin-Okubo

Apart from its new safety-first platform barriers, the old place looks (more or less) the same as I step down from the train. The road to The Globe Tokyo, as it’s called today, is now peppered with Asian restaurants and supermarkets, and the discount clothes shop where young British actors would find bargains has become a ¥100 store. The theater complex itself is still pleasantly pink, but the main entrance is now at the back beside the railway, and the flaming cauldrons are no more.

I wander through the silent piazza and down the steps to refresh memories and myself at the Globe Tavern. But alas and alack poor Yorick, I find it gone, replaced by a computer school; the Japanese actors performing “Frankenstein” at this moment will not be carousing here tonight.

There’s a glimpse of white plaster wall through the door, but I soon learn from Matsuoka-san, the former Tavern barman who runs a nearby izakaya called Ubou (closing down this month) that those precious theatrical signatures and motley other inscriptions disappeared forever under a new coat of paint several years ago.

“Never play ball games” orders a bilingual sign in the middle of the amphitheater, while a board at the entrance to the complex lists other activities forbidden on the premises, including one that would surely bemuse Sir Ian: “Never make any loud noises or voices (without intension)” — sic. However good his “intensions” might be, one suspects that even playful entertainment delivered by that knight of the realm would not be acceptable.

I imagine his voice once more echoing round those cold gray concrete seats, but this time with a touch of nostalgia: “Our revels now are ended … our actors are all melted into thin air … ” (Prospero in “The Tempest,” Act IV, Scene I).

But Tokyo’s “great globe itself” (ibid.) has not dissolved yet, and long may it live on in this most unlikely of locations.

Stuart Varnam-Atkin is a writer, voice coach and narrator (NHK World TV: “Tomorrow” / “Begin Japanology”) and director of the Birmingham Brains Trust translation and narration agency. A founder of the Albion-za and Za Gaijin theater troupes in Tokyo, he also helped with the Panasonic Tokyo Globe’s newsletter and performed on its stage in “The Chysanthemum and the Rose” (Tokyo Actors Repertory Company, 1998).