Marking four centuries since the death of William Shakespeare in 1616, the 101-year-old all-female Takarazuka Revue company is currently staging a new musical titled “Shakespeare: The Sky Filled With Eternal Words” at its Takarazuka Grand Theater in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, ahead of a Tokyo season starting next month.
Although the Bard’s plays are known the world over, and are performed more than any other writer’s, little is known of his personal life — especially his so-called lost years from 1578-82 and 1585-92. Speculation also abounds how the son of a glove-maker from a small country town rose to the pinnacle of English Renaissance theater with neither wealth, family connections nor a university education behind him?
Hence Takarazuka’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s biography, written and directed by Hirokazu Ikuta, is an amalgam of fact and fiction, such as the films “Shakespeare in Love” and “Anonymous,” that creates an imaginative vision of the iconic poet and playwright’s life and loves.
The production opens at a rehearsal for his early tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” in a public theater in London around 1594, shortly after an outbreak of bubonic plague. Observing the romance happening on stage before them, the emerging writer, portrayed by Manato Asaka, and his wife, Anne Hathaway (Rion Misaki), reminisce about meeting as “star-crossed lovers” on May Day six years before.
Back then, as they fondly recall, 18-year-old William came upon Anne hiding in the forest near their hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, afraid her family was about to marry her off to a wealthy man. From the moment Anne read his poetry aloud that day, she became his muse and the inspiration for further “Sonnets” and the very play “Romeo and Juliet” itself.
However, lovestruck William soon afterward lampooned a local bigwig and was ordered to leave the area — a blow he and Anne reenact in a balcony scene of their own.
Still, their fate is infinitely more blessed than Romeo and Juliet’s, since William is offered a position as a playwright by George Carey, a nobleman who is setting up a theater company in London named the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Grasping this rare chance to realize his dream — and following a fast-track wedding with Anne — the young writer heads off to the capital, where he is soon being acclaimed both by the public and the theater-loving monarch, Elizabeth I.
Personally, though, everything isn’t quite so rosy for him in Ikuta’s play after he summons his wife and young son Hamnet from Stratford to join him in London. There, the pressures of city life soon drive a wedge between them, and when William accuses Anne of having an affair with a famous actor she heads off back to Stratford taking their son with her — though he falls ill on the way and dies at home.
On top of that, we next see how the power of Shakespeare’s pen — which he’s used to plot the murder of emperors and kings in “Julius Caesar,” “Richard III,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” — sparks political turmoil that leads to the troupe’s noble patrons Henry Wriothesley and Robert Devereux, along with Carey, being arrested.
When they are accused of high treason, their only hope of avoiding execution rests with Shakespeare, as the spinster Queen Elizabeth says she will spare them if he writes a play that pleases her and features conjugal love.
What he comes up with is “The Winter’s Tale,” which after much trial and error the company performs at the court. With Anne in the leading role of virtuous Hermione, the beautiful Queen of Sicily wrongly accused of adultery and thrown out by her husband, King Leontes, Elizabeth looks on as the royal couple reunite years later to mourn their son’s death — and rekindle their conjugal feelings for each other.
Deeply moved, it seems, the Virgin Queen pardons the treason and presents William with a coat of arms — the sign of a gentleman — that his father has long wished for.
And so this Takarazuka tour de force arrives at its happy ending as the auditorium fills with a song proclaiming those eternally famous words from Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It”: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”
“Shakespeare: The Sky Filled With Eternal Words” and “Hot Eyes!!” run until Feb. 1 at Takarazuka Grand Theater, then Feb. 19-March 27 at Tokyo Takarazuka Theater. For details, visit kageki.hankyu.co.jp.