What’s the worth of words?

by Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

By popular demand, Shizuoka Performing Arts Center is set to stage a revival of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” its sell-out 2011 production adapted by contemporary theater paragon Hideki Noda and directed by its own artistic diector, Satoshi Miyagi.

Back in April 2011, counter to the shock and grief and consequent sense of restraint gripping the nation following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, and the resulting nuclear meltdowns, Miyagi decided not to call off SPAC’s first “World Theatre Festival Shizuoka under Mt. Fuji” scheduled to run from June into July.

In fact, amid growing public distrust of the mainstream media’s coverage of those momentous events, Miyagi addressed a pre-festival press conference reaffirming his belief that “theater gives audiences a chance to think about challenges in a calm and focused way.” And, to open the festival, he opted to revive Noda’s renowned 1992 adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

This version of Shakespeare’s classic comedy marked a bold departure from the original, and from the principal Japanese translations by Yushi Odashima. Using his trademark puns and frantic pace, Noda reworked the play’s central themes of love and sexual desire through food culture — relocating its Athenian court to a Japanese restaurant and its forest to the foothills of Mount Fuji. He also turned the young Athenian blades Demetrius and Lysander into cooks named Demi and Lai, transformed lovelorn (for Lysander) Hermia into Tokitamago, daughter of the restaurant owner, and renamed besotted (over Demetrius) Helena as Soboro, daughter of one of the restaurant workers.

In addition to the Japanization of the characters, Noda incorporated stories from other literary works, including “Faust” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” — inventing, for example, Mephisto, a character who eats up people’s suppressed desires.

If Noda’s adaptation bears traces of an age of economic exuberance in its flights of culinary fantasy, Miyagi’s revival, almost two decades later, made it more sober fare. Although he’d scheduled the play prior to March 11 that year, rehearsals only began afterward and, in a perverse twist of fate, the catastrophe’s neo-mythological scale seemed to connect with Miyagi’s initial impetus to take on the play.

In his program note in June 2011, he described the relationship between tragedy and comedy in the context of Shakespeare’s work as the encounter between a type of theater that “deals with large philosophical questions” and one that draws on “real-size everyday life.” And indeed, part of the power of Miyagi’s production derives from that tension between these two forms of diegetic reality and their real-life doubles.

Just like the first production, this revival opens with a stark black stage that is soon disturbed by the arrival of Soboro, the play’s heroine, played by Maki Honda. In her opening speech, which is part soliloquy and part invocation of the forest-dwelling fairies whose king is Oberon, she questions the human capacity to subsist in the face of the unknown: “Whenever something mysterious happens, people blame it on the night or they blame it on the summer … or they think they’ve had a dream. But trust me, these mysteries are not imagined.”

Soboro’s solemn speech is suddenly riven by a burst of drums from the ensemble led by musical director Hiroko Tanakawa. Here, indeed, as in most of Miyagi’s productions, musicians play a central role, fusing world-music traditions to drive the atmospherics of the play. Hence the drums here cue a sharp change in lighting states, from dark to bright white — revealing a paper-made forest that sprawls across the stage.

Rapid transitions such as these are recurrent in the production and create a montage-like effect that can switch the tragedy to comedy in just a few seconds.

In the case of the first production in 2011, the set was entirely made out of newspaper, so too were the fairies’ costumes. This time, newspapers are printed on cloth. In both versions, though, the flimsily fashioned stage can be taken as commentary on the popular distrust of mainstream Japanese media in its reporting on the nuclear disaster.

At the same time, the use of newspapers can also be read as an affirmation of language, both literal and metaphoric, along the lines of the remark by Titania — Oberon’s wife, the Queen of the Fairies — that “the words human folk swallow are not necessarily all rubbish.”

Indeed, one of the central conceits in Noda’s adaptation is the emphasis on the power of language. For example, in a climactic scene toward the end, Soboro calls on the power of words to prevent the destruction of the entire forest after Mephisto, one of Noda’s invented characters, sets it alight in an act of rage he sees as fulfilling a collective, unspoken desire for transgression.

The lines Noda puts into the mouth of this transplant from Goethe’s “Faust” he’s created present a moment in the play in which the border between the mythological and the everyday begins to blur: “While calls for the end of the world swell in number, it’s my turn to take action. … I, Mephisto, will take action. I will grant your wish and let the sea swallow you up.”

However, the great forest fire is stopped as a result of Soboro’s words that soothe Mephisto’s anger and move him to tears which douse the inferno.

So finally, the juxtaposition of a set made entirely of newsprint emblazoned with slogans and letters, and a story that moves between mythological and everyday themes, heightens the ambivalent sense of the power and powerlessness of language.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be performed at SPAC on Feb. 1, 9, 15 and 23, and on March 1. For more details, including a special program for junior high and high school students, visit www.spac.or.jp or call 054-202-3399.