When we met last weekend, the world-renowned English theater director David Leveaux was relaxing with a cigarette “in the lovely sunshine” outside a rehearsal studio by Tokyo Bay. He was there for an intensive afternoon’s work with the three Japanese actors who form the cast of his upcoming production of “Old Times” by Harold Pinter (1930-2008) at the Nissay Theatre in Tokyo’s Hibiya district — for which he is creating a Noh-style platform stage but with LED lights around.
Premiered in 1971 at the Almeida Theatre in London, this classic work by the Nobel Prize-winning English playwright revolves around two women and a man meeting after years apart and sharing memories of their overlapping lives long before.
Though his work is regularly staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Donmar Warehouse and the Almeida in London, Leveaux, 56 — who has garnered five U.S. Tony Award nominations — calls Japan his third home (after London and New York), having been semi-resident in Tokyo for 13 years from 1993 when he cofounded its cutting-edge Theatre Project Tokyo with Hitoshi Kadoi and became its artistic director.
During that period, in which one of his productions was Pinter’s “Betrayal,” Leveaux ushered in a Western way of reading texts with minute attention to detail — and also involved the cast in the process of drama creation in a far more democratic way than Japan’s top-down norm.
However, Leveaux hasn’t just contributed to the contemporary drama scene in this country. By his own account, he’s also taken a great deal from his experience here — whether of the Ryoanji stone garden he’s often visited in Kyoto, Yukio Mishima’s modern noh plays, or “realizing that good Japanese actors can conceal so much yet draw on so much internal pressure.” Despite currently overseeing productions in the West End and on Broadway as well as “Old Times,” Leveaux was as relaxed as could be when we entered the rehearsal room for this JT interview.
What do you and the cast of “Old Times” — Rei Asami, Mayumi Wakamura and Keisuke Horibe — focus on in rehearsals?
Well, this is quite a short play that tells a very big story about the past of three people, so we try to find out what are the essentials and eliminate all the things we don’t need. We also examine every line so that little by little it comes alive.
I sometimes think in terms of the tea ceremony, which I experienced once in Kyoto. There, everything that’s not relevant to the experience is stripped away so you are left with a very rich form of minimalism — you know, one bowl, one pattern on the bowl, one flower … .
Pinter’s writing has something of those characteristics.
You have previously said how you think the education system in Japan fosters passivity. Is that a problem in creating theater?
Well I’m horrified in the West that we don’t seem to educate kids in history any more, and unless you’re allowed to understand your history you can’t see the world in the rich context you need to do.
But I think all our education systems need serious attention, because they’ve become so obsessed with exams and results and all those things — which are just techniques — instead of the most fundamental gifts you can give a child, which are confidence and the tools to interrogate the world around them; what your government tells you, what someone like me says about Pinter. You know, don’t just accept what you’re given.
The rehearsal room is a magnification of those issues, so I encourage everyone to interrogate the text, because theater is there to interrogate our lives; to explore together who we are, why we are, what we are and all those mysteries — and that’s why we go to the theater to have some experience of that together.
This time, I’ve worked with two of the three actors before, so they know me pretty well and are very comfortable asking questions and making proposals. So it’s not a question of a director imposing a performance on an actor.
What you’re actually trying to do is authorize the actors, so that instead of following the director’s instructions like intelligent puppets, they understand what they are doing with every word, and why. Then they can build on that themselves and feel that they are the authority on the stage, so their relationship is with the audience and hopefully I am not getting in the way.
Of course that makes a huge difference for the audience — because the actor leads, not the director.
With this play, do you find any particular problems in getting the actors to lead?
In “Old Times,” Pinter has taken out all the bridges that usually exist between one experience and another, so they are collided together in a very compressed way. That means the actors have to be moving emotionally at very great speed throughout.
In fact I’m fond of calling this play a kind of haiku — a haiku version of the story of the youth of three people and what happened to and between them. That puts the actors under huge pressure because they have to be absolutely on their mettle for each moment.
I’ve also been very impressed by the access these actors have to some of the play’s very complex and radical emotions, which are not always easy to follow intellectually but have to be understood intuitively.
That’s because, as I say to people, “Don’t worry if you think you don’t understand it, just let it come to you like a piece of jazz would come to you.” Then there will be things they intuitively start to recognize are related to their life; the way they remember, and their history — all of which are very rich.
In “Old Times,” what would you say Pinter is essentially trying to address?
I feel there is something about the elusiveness of love that the play is fundamentally about, and anybody who’s had that experience of not being able quite to capture somebody they really love, or who feels later in their life that they did not love well or well enough, or that they hurt someone in the past — these are resonances that are very strong in the play and that I hope will be clear. The play is a masterpiece.
“Old Times” is categorized as a “memory play.” Do you think Pinter would agree?
Well, through all the time I knew him and worked with him and even directed him as an actor in one of his own plays, he would never say what his works “meant” — only, sometimes, “what seems to be happening here is … ”
But I think he understood that the forces that live below the surfaces of civilization and familiarity are very, very powerful. And I think he wanted to penetrate the surface of the familiar, so that suddenly we could see vividly the true, radical strangeness of the way we live. And I think he knew that human beings, when they’re asked to, can recognize how strange their life is.
However, with memory, we have an ability to keep on revising how we remember something — so that now, the way we remember something that happened many years ago is more real than the reality, whatever that was, and that’s a very interesting thing.
It’s almost as if the person who is remembering and the person who experienced something are two different people, and I think that’s a fundamental truth about Pinter’s use of memory; he writes from the point of view of the past trying to push its way into the present tense. And that’s what makes the play very dynamic.
So I hope “Old Times” will help people to realize the possibilities of theater — and that it will linger long in their memories.
“Old Times” runs June 6–15 at the Nissay Theatre near Yurakucho Station in Tokyo. It then tours to Umeda Arts Theater, Theater Drama City in Osaka from June 19-22. For details, call 0570-077-039 or visit www.umegei.com/LeveauxUAT.