Shirai triumphs with ‘The Tempest’

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

“I’d like ‘The Tempest’ I am creating to be on the smallest scale ever, but as it’s a very spacious stage at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, it won’t have the most compact set. Nonetheless, I will try to present it as stories from within the confines of one man’s memory.”

With those two sentences, 57-year-old director Akira Shirai astounded a press conference held at the NNTT last month for the launch of its upcoming new production.

After all, among William Shakespeare’s 37 plays few can rival the dramatic setting and effects of “The Tempest,” and most people there had expected Shirai to announce a spectacular staging of this supernatural epic — and certainly not to tell them how small he wanted to make it.

Believed to be the last play the Bard wrote alone, in 1610-11, “The Tempest” follows events on a mysterious island where the hero Prospero (played by Ikko Furuya) and his daughter Miranda (Shiho Takano) washed up 12 years before after Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, was usurped by his brother, Antonio (Hatsunori Hasegawa), and they were cast adrift in a small boat. However, the remote island is also home to — among others — Ariel (Masahiro Usui), a capricious spirit who does Prospero’s bidding after being saved by him from an evil sorceress, and a fearful monster named Caliban (Hirokazu Kouchi).

During his exile Prospero masters sorcery, and one day he uses his magic powers to summon up a tempest that drives a ship carrying his nemesis, Antonio, along with Alonso, the King of Naples (Ryosei Tayama), and his sneaky brother Sebastian (Yuichi Haba) onto its rocky shores.

Although Prospero’s motive had been to exact cruel revenge, when he sees how Miranda and Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Kanata Irei) fall instantly in love, he opts instead to overcome history and wish everyone well from here on. It’s a lesson in tolerance and looking forward to a new shared future that will hopefully not be lost on any of Japan’s movers and shakers in the auditorium, since this nation appears to be teetering dangerously back toward the bad old days of jingoism.

Meanwhile, lessons of another sort have already been learned from this production, as is evident from comments posted on the NNTT’s website by David Bintley, the Englishman who’s been artistic director of its ballet department since 2010. Soon set to leave Japan and resume full-time his role as artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the choreographer has said that he aims to create an original ballet of “The Tempest” — which is why he dropped by one day to watch Shirai’s team in rehearsal.

” ‘The Tempest’ is very open to movements and magic and interpretation,” he observes online. “And what’s particularly interesting for me watching the rehearsal is that it’s clearly a very radical interpretation and it looks very different from any other production I’ve seen before.”

So, it wasn’t just that word “small,” but also Bintley’s declaration of its utter difference, that accompanied me as I entered the theater for the opening night’s performance, anxious to see whether Shirai’s radical direction would work or not. I needn’t have worried: In fact, the memorable production brilliantly illuminated Shakespeare’s world through the prism of Prospero’s memories of his life — just as Shirai intended.

To accomplish his own magic on stage, the director assembled the hero’s life as a chain of stories with a beginning, a middle — and an end that mirrors the beginning, in which we gradually pick out the shadowlike shape of Prospero walking slowly toward the center of the stage, where a dimly lit bulb hangs down and casts the only light. He then starts to stir a small puddle that appears as if by magic, before growing and growing (thanks to the wonders of projection) until it becomes that furious tempest from which all else emerges.

Then, in the last scene, we see the hero take off his cape to symbolically relinquish his magical powers. Then, having reverted to being just an ordinary old man, he warmly voices the play’s epilogue before walking slowly back into the darkness whence he came.

Between the symmetry of those two scenes, Shirai cleverly serves up hints as to the wisdoms Prospero garners from the progress of his life — a life lived here in a world comprising tons of corrugated-paper cartons variously assembled to imaginatively represent everything from the wrecked ship to the island’s rough rocks or its simple buildings.

As well, it’s from such cartons that Prospero takes out books originally smuggled aboard that small boat in which he and Miranda were cast adrift — books of magic lore from which he has gleaned his powerful knowledge.

Astoundingly, it’s with little more in the way of sets or props, but with the mama!milk ensemble’s original live music on organ, contrabass and accordion conjuring up the island’s eerie atmosphere, that this groundbreaking production keeps on drawing in its audience and serving them tips on what’s important in life — whether intellect, labor, nature, love, humility or what.

Back at that press conference, Shirai also said that he’d been determined to cast 70-year-old Ikko Furuya in the lead role — and having seen his magnificent Prospero it was easy to see why. Not only did his deep, sonorous voice and calm elocution somehow render his realm as real as those cartons, but he executed wonderfully the director’s overriding intention to present “The Tempest” as a series of Prospero’s reflections on his life.

As a result, too, Shirai was able to eliminate a common pitfall of Japanese productions of the Bard’s fantasy plays such as this one, “Pericles,” “Cymbeline” and “The Winter’s Tale ” — a failure to properly convey their supernatural dimensions, which can leave them seeming nonsensical.

Strangely enough, whether for this reason or not, since it opened in 1997 the NNTT hasn’t tackled many Shakespeare plays — though among them have been gems such as German director Peter Stein’s “Hamlet” in 2002, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (“Natsu no Yo no Yume”) staged in 2007 and ’09 by Britain’s John Caird, and Hitoshi Uyama’s “Henry VI” in 2009.

Now it is to be hoped that Shirai’s “The Tempest” in 2014 will join this roster of acclaim — with Furuya’s triumphant Prospero also lauded along with Takano’s lovable Miranda and Kouchi’s kaleidoscopic Caliban.

“The Tempest”‘ runs till June 1 at the New National Theatre, Tokyo. For details, call 03-5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.