Life is hard for Marcello Magni. Not only is he directing a production separately starring famed actress Tomoko Mariya and upcoming talent Kae Okumura, but the work, in Japanese, is also his brand-new version of an early play by his great friend — and Japan’s leading contemporary dramatist — Hideki Noda.
Recounting how “Tinkerbell in Shoji Land” comes to be staged now at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro, where Noda is artistic director, Magni, 54, was typically modest in saying, “It was Tomoko who suggested the idea of Hideki creating something with me. That came after I emailed one day from England, where I live, and it happened to be her birthday. Anyhow, she was so excited that soon after she talked to Hideki about her collaboration idea.”
That was almost four years ago, and we started work on this production two years ago — but its real genesis was back in 1981, when Noda wrote his fantastical one-woman play spanning the whole world and beyond in just three days over New Year’s.
After that, though — despite Noda already towering over other dramatists of his generation in Japan — “Tinkerbell in Shoji Land” (whose title refers to the typically Japanese shōji paper-screen doors and windows) sank into the shadows for 20 years before being staged in a now-legendary small-scale project by the Bunkamura Cocoon Theatre in a cozy downtown-Tokyo studio with Sonsho Inoue directing and Mayu Tsuruta in the starring role.
This time, however, it’s a major production — and Magni is not only tackling the near-unknown work in a language he doesn’t speak, but he’s also creating two versions with two actresses, both of whom play homeless people in a big city like Tokyo.
Why? One may well ask. The Italian, however, is undaunted. “When I first read Hideki’s play (in its English translation), I was so touched,” he said. “I thought it was a beautiful story about a first love, and also about a pure and true love. I didn’t know whether it was one person’s story, or several people’s, but that didn’t matter because it was just about humans’ feelings of true love — even the feelings of homeless people we see in parks and ignore, though we know nothing of their stories.”
Noda’s story centers on Tinkerbell (aka Tink) — a character who at once links us to Scottish writer J.M. Barrie’s fairy-tale play from 1904, “Peter Pan,” and who here, through monologues and song, celebrates the memory of her ill-fated love for the boy who refused to grow up.
But in Noda’s tale, Tink sometimes pretends to be Peter, and talks about his star-crossed love for a beautiful Japanese doll named Eiko whom he met while flying around the world. At other times, as Peter blindly pursues his hitodenashi (inanimate vision of love), Tink is left to ponder the pure but immature nature of romance.
“Hideki wrote this when he was 25, and I strongly sense that its feeling of youth is an enduring charm — that feeling of a young man with the courage to love,” Magni said.
“I especially like his pure passion, because the message is really: ‘Don’t miss your chance in love. Don’t hesitate to live for love.’ That youthful ideal is still very fresh here for me personally as a Western boy who’s come to this country and encountered Eastern culture. So, this play shows how people may meet unknown things but realize their unity with others nonetheless.”
In the case of Noda and Magni, though, their link goes back to a day in 1992 when the Japanese dramatist literally knocked on the door of the Theatre de Complicite in North London — a company (since renamed Complicite) founded in 1983 by Magni, Simon McBurney and Annabel Arden that is known for its physical and visual (rather than text-heavy) approach, and whose groundbreaking 1992 work “Street of Crocodiles” first really made its name. That meeting during a year he spent studying drama in London on a government scholarship in 1992, was, Noda admits, one of the key turning points in his theater career.
However, the inspiration clearly wasn’t one way, because Noda’s and Complicite’s international exchanges have continued ever since. Not only has Magni featured in Noda’s hits “The Bee” in 2012-13 and “Red Demon” in 1996, but Magni’s wife, Kathryn Hunter, who is also a Complicite alumni, has been Noda’s leading lady in both the revenge-begets-revenge drama “The Bee,” and his 2008 anti-hanging play “The Diver.”
As for the work in hand, Magni smiled a tad ruefully as he admitted, “Of course, it’s very complicated making two versions at the same time.” Explaining how it demands double the rehearsal time, with mornings for Mariya and afternoons for Okumura, Magni said he keeps them quite separate because “I don’t want them to copy the other one, even unconsciously.”
Also, he explained, “At Complicite we always took on board all the actors’ opinions and ideas, and there was no all-commanding director. So, I do the same here and try to listen to each actress’s own ideas.”
As a result, despite the sets and lines being virtually the same in both versions of “Tinkerbell in Shoji Land,” Magni says the final outcomes will be quite different.
For instance, he pointed to how Tomoko brings a lot more life experience to her Tinkerbell, “so she resonates with her pain over love lost through her own experience, so she is sometimes bitter.
“On the other hand, Kae’s Tinkerbell doesn’t carry the hurt of Tomoko’s, so she is more optimistic and it is a very physical stage — though it becomes a more vivid broken-heart story.
“However, we can’t say which woman is happier, because we don’t know the young one’s future or how the mature woman will come to terms with her loss.”
Then, in another of those bolts from the blue the Stage page seems to attract, Magni revealed that he has in mind to do an English version of the play in the near future — with, of course, his prima donna, Kathryn, as its star.
“It will be an old Tinkerbell (laughs), an old lady’s love story,” he confides. “But anyhow, Kathryn did an old couple’s version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in England in 2009, a play by Ben Power titled “A Tender Thing.” In that, Juliet had a terminal disease and she asked her husband to let her die. Then, when they were both dead they were reborn and walked along a street hand in hand. It was so beautiful. “So, I am sure her old Tinkerbell will be marvelous, too.”
“Tinkerbell in Shoji Land” runs Feb. 13-23 (Tomoko Mariya Feb. 13-17, Kae Okumura Feb. 20-23) at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Theatre, Theatre East, in Ikebukuro. For details, visit www.geigeki.jp.