Nomura’s ‘Don Quixote’ enlists comedy to counter today’s real foes

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

“Whenever I am creating a new play here at Setagaya Public Theatre, I aim for something that’s as universal as all those kyōgen (traditional comic theater) or noh classics that are as vivid now as when they were first staged 600 years ago. If it isn’t like that, it won’t reach an international audience, and I always have it in mind to take my work outside Japan.”

When he talks like that, it’s clear what high — and far-reaching — targets Mansai Nomura, the artistic director of Setagaya Public Theatre (SEPT), sets himself even despite his unrelenting, madly busy creative and performing schedule.

This time, he’s tilting to create no less than an original version of “Don Quixote” — of which he says, “Everybody knows the outline of Miguel de Cervantes’ story, but I don’t think many people know the details. So I thought I could use the famous character of that half-senile, paranoid but courageous knight to describe the pitiable condition of today’s crooked world. That’s much more interesting than just having a hero going around trying to punish wrongdoing.”

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Nomura, 47, who is one of the nation’s foremost kyogen actors, went on to explain why he — together with 54-year-old playwright Takeshi Kawamura — decided to adapt the epic 1605 novel about the adventure-filled travels of an old knight named Alonso and his loyal attendant, Sancho Panza for their new work titled “A Knight in No-God’s Land — or, What Made Don Quixote Do It?” which is now running at SEPT with Nomura both acting the title role and directing.

Surprisingly, perhaps, he launched into his explanation saying, “If you think about Don Quixote figures today, then don’t you think those candidates in the recent Tokyo gubernatorial election looked exactly like Don Quixotes?”

Then he continued, “I believe in the necessity for quick responses to actual events, and I think theater should be a mirror of what’s happening. However, I rather worry that many of today’s contemporary Western plays just aim to shock or accuse somebody or issue some kind of polemic. For example, I saw a play in London with a Saddam Hussein lookalike acting the part of Julius Caesar, but I’m not interested in taking that sort of route to shock people.

“In contrast, many plays in Japan just deal with their creators’ private lives and don’t refer to social issues at all. That’s disappointing as well.

“Consequently, I don’t want to create anything dogmatic, but I do want to create a play that cleverly mirrors the time we’re living in — then leaves it to the audiences to find their answers. That’s an approach I have learned from my kyogen experience. For example, the characters in kyogen plays introduce themselves simply by saying: ‘Konoatari no mono de gozaru (I’m just somebody who lives around here).’ That means the character is a perfectly anonymous, ordinary person.”

Since he was appointed as the artistic director of SEPT in 2002, Nomura has been actively striving to build bridges between contemporary and traditional theater in Japan. One way he has done this is through a program he started for which he asks promising young contemporary playwrights to write modern versions of noh plays — a remarkably successful initiative whose seventh series has just finished.

Now, this current work — “A Knight in No-God’s Land” — is another bridge-building exercise by Nomura in fusing a classic text with modern content. It follows his adaptations of three Shakespeare plays — “A Comedy of Errors,” “Richard III” and “Macbeth” — to create original modern works.

“With this series of adaptations of European classics, I have used our traditional Japanese theatrical methods to try to create plays that could only be made in Japan. So, I borrow the phenomenon of Don Quixote and make a contemporary Japanese play that reflects the way things are today.”

With this new work, Kawamura has relocated Don Quixote, his attendant Sancho Panza and various other new characters he’s introduced, such as birds and a dog, from rural La Mancha in Spain to a buzzing No-God’s Land seared with artificial lights — today’s urban Japan. In this supremely unnatural setting for all concerned, we then witness Don Quixote fighting not against windmills, but an unseen power that seems to control the world and be driving it to destruction.

“There are hundreds of different ‘unseen powers’ in the world,” Nomura noted. “Some might think of state power; some may think of the manipulation of information — while especially in Japan now, some may think of an unseen nuclear-energy strategy. Actually, there are many metaphors regarding accidents at nuclear power stations in this play, but I don’t want to present this as a play about the nuclear power issue. Instead, I would rather let audience members think individually about their understanding of unseen powers.”

In the same way to this “Don Quixote,” in 2010 Nomura’s version of “Macbeth” used minimal stage sets and a drastically pared-down cast numbering just five — Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, each played by one actor throughout, and three others who played the witches and various others. This work, which highlighted so many moral and political and personal contradictions common in today’s world, was rerun three years later in Japan, before triumphant tours to South Korea and New York and an upcoming tour to Romania and Paris this spring.

“If someone produces something, they produce waste at the same time,” Nomura observed without a trace of kyogen humor. “With my ‘Macbeth,’ I wanted to say that there is always positive and negative — two phases in all matter. Of course this echoes Shakespeare’s famous line in ‘Macbeth’ that, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair.’

“So, for example, if you produce energy with nuclear power, you should be mindful of the nuclear waste. In this ‘A Knight in No-God’s Land,’ the audiences will see people who have suffered from this negative situation, but whom we have all ignored for so long.”

This time, as a new experiment, Nomura has invited six dancers from the leading butoh company Dairakudakan to join the cast of “Don Quixote” and use their otherworldly art to express the mass of ordinary people and their fluctuating social environment.

Asked how their roles play out in practice, the actor-director explained, “They express everything silently just with movement, but their naked bodies and the flexibility of their physical expression works brilliantly and I’m sure audiences can imagine crisis circumstances much better through their roles than just by hearing actors’ explanations.”

Finally, Nomura explained an interesting episode from last year’s “Macbeth” season in New York.

“After the performance, some other actors who had actually acted Macbeth before came to me and said they were confused because they had laughed a lot at many scenes,” he recalled, adding that “they were even more confused — and amused — because my play still concluded as being a serious tragedy in the end (laugh).

“I think that happened because I am a kyogen, comedy actor. I don’t like an entirely serious tragedy. I prefer a story with an anti-hero who is useless and not cool. It makes me feel excited to see a useless person like that change into a mature hero. So in that sense I like Macbeth being a bad, greedy man who’s agonizing about everything throughout his life before he finally plumbs the depth of what it really is to be human. Such a dramatic transformation makes for a really rich human drama.”

As he journeys ever nearer to a man-made end of the world, what realization, if any, will Nomura’s Don Quixote finally arrive at? To discover whether it will be heaven or hell, why not take yourself on a trip to SEPT in Tokyo’s Sangenjaya district of Setagaya Ward.

“A Knight in No-God’s Land — or, What Made Don Quixote Do It?” runs till March 16 at Setagaya Public Theatre, a 3-min. walk from Sangenjaya Station on the Denen Toshi or Setagaya lines. It then tours to Matsumoto and Hyogo in Nagano and Hyogo prefectures, respectively. For more details, call Setagaya Public Theatre at 03-5432-1515 or visit setagaya-pt.jp.