Using the unique device of actors performing as bunraku-style puppets, complete with visible, black-clad puppeteers, France’s Theatre du Soleil is in Tokyo to present its 1999 creation, “Tambours sur la Digue (Drummers on the Dike).” Directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, the play’s unusual nature is indicated by its subtitle, “A Story of the Ancient East for Puppets Played by Actors.”
Under Mnouchkine’s leadership, a group of students at the University of Paris formed a dramatic circle called Theatre du Soleil in 1964. By 1970, they had established a home base in the Cartoucherie, an old munitions factory in the forest of Vincennes outside Paris. Rejecting the constraints on acting imposed by conventional theaters, the theater in the Cartoucherie experimented with a unique dramatic space, a replica of which has been constructed in the Playhouse of the New National Theater for this, the troupe’s first overseas presentation of “Tambours sur la Digue.”
Based on a text written by Helene Cixous after a deluge in China in 1998, the drama tells of people living in a certain fiefdom in China 1,000 years ago, pitted against the overwhelming power of Nature. A great river flows through the fiefdom, dividing the country into northern and southern areas protected by dikes. The area to the north is occupied by farmers and laborers who work in villages and factories, while to the south lie palaces, temples and theaters, where privileged people of means live.
The play opens with a soothsayer’s prediction of a great flood that will sweep across the country. Lord Khang, a conscientious ruler, is greatly troubled, because he knows he can save only one side of the river by destroying the dike of the other bank, sacrificing its people.
Khang keeps deliberating until, amid confusion, the fierce sound of drums beaten by the men guarding the dike signals the approach of raging water.
The courtiers begin to scheme against one another, forcing Lord Khang to abdicate and installing his ambitious nephew, Hun. Events turn bloody when the court architect, alarmed by a fatal crack he has found in one earthen dike, is murdered by a wicked minister while on his way to report to Lord Khang.
Even Duan, the lovely daughter of the soothsayer who courageously joins the troupe of drummers guarding the dike, is killed by her lover Wang Po, the Chancellor’s young secretary. With the death of Duan, the drummers trying to keep control of the dike lose heart for the fight.
The play ends in silence as dolls, thrown into a pool of water in the center of the stage, are picked up one by one by a puppeteer and shown to the audience — a moving final scene which reveals the essence of director Mnouchkine’s art.
The staging of “Tambours sur la Digue” is full of surprises. You enter the Playhouse and walk toward what is ordinarily the stage, but on which the audience’s seats are set. Actors preparing can be glimpsed in the dark open space to the left. The wooden performance stage, almost square in shape, is supposed to be encircled by flowing water, while backdrops of graded gray or madder red show distant trees or mountains.
It is the kind of stage on which one’s imagination can play. Stage right, you can even examine the impressive array of exotic musical instruments used by composer Jean-Jacques Lemetre.
No less striking are the costumes in black, white and red, which make versatile use of Japanese kimono and Chinese or Korean dress. The actors wear Japanese-looking wigs, while the makeup creates the effect of masks, permitting almost no facial expression save for glints in the actors’ almond-shaped eyes. Often holding fans, the actors move graciously, reminiscent of bunraku puppets, with puppeteers following. Every now and then they leap in the air, skillfully held by puppeteers.
In the striking theatrical adventure that is “Tambours sur la Digue,” Mnouchkine’s direction tries to break away from realism, and she has surely succeeded. Profoundly influenced by the bunraku theater, she created a stage for puppets performed by actors, focusing on the movements and expressions of their bodies.
The play combines both power and charm, and through the device of actors who perform like puppets Mnouchkine poses questions with universal impact about how people react and behave at a time of catastrophe.