Comedy that doesn’t always translate

Is Anton Chekhov next in line for a cutting-edge update on Japan's stages?


After decades of playing Shakespeare “straight,” Japanese directors and actors are now taking stagings of his works to a different level. A move away from pure “translation drama” toward an approach rooted in Japanese experience has been the exciting hallmark of productions such as Hideki Noda’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream,” and Mansai Nomura’s kyogen version of “The Comedy of Errors.”

Meanwhile, the last year has also seen many theater companies turn to plays by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). It’s tempting to speculate whether stagings of Russia’s foremost dramatist will follow where those of the Bard of Avon have led.

It’s too soon to say, but on the evidence of “Chekov: Series — The Work of the Soul” at the New National Theater in Shinjuku, we are already witnessing a move away from the reverence that traditionally characterized Japanese stagings of these plays of pre-revolutionary upper-class Russian life.

The NNT Chekhov “Series” — five productions running through the first half of this year — includes a range of material staged by both established and exciting young directors. “The Sneeze” is the second instalment of the season and comprises four one-act plays and adaptations of four short stories, mostly written by Chekhov in his 20s. These eight pieces are presented in Japanese based on versions produced in English by the celebrated British playwright and translator Michael Frayn. (Frayn’s last original drama, 1998’s “Copenhagen,” was heaped with both critical praise and awards.)

When Frayn’s versions were first performed in London in 1988, the main actor was Rowan Atkinson — now best known as the eponymous hero of “Mr Bean.” Atkinson’s hit comedy series first took to the small screen the year after “The Sneeze” appeared on the London stage, and it is perhaps no coincidence that similarities abound between the two. Just as Mr Bean portrays human absurdity through his silent vignettes of an Englishman’s daily life, so this “The Sneeze” sees Chekov expose the absurd nature of Russian society, viewed across the spectrum from workers to bourgeoisie. While both ultimately celebrate humanity, they equally adopt cynical viewpoints — albeit a cynicism that emerges simply from showing ordinary people acting in ordinary ways. Somehow, it seems, the more “ordinary” people attempt to behave, the more hilarious they become.

So, has this rich fund of “ordinary” human humor reached the stage in Shinjuku? Well, regrettably, this time it seems the director and his cast got too excited handling Chekhov. For example, when the curtain goes up we’re confronted with a huge portrait of the playwright forming the backdrop to the stage. This serious, middle-aged visage conveys the image of “Chekhov the master,” “Chekhov the great” — the author, perhaps, of masterpieces such as “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya” or “The Cherry Orchard,” but not well suited to this romping farce.

Also undercutting the farce is the overacting of one principal, the performer known as Ikkokudo. Director Kazuo Kumakura has not restrained the actor’s evident eagerness to make us laugh — an enthusiasm that is entirely at odds with the cool deadpan required for farce. As is so often the case in drama, once an actor reveals his or her aim — in this case, to make us laugh — its achievement becomes that much harder. Ironically, Ikkokudo only really shone in a scene involving ventriloquism — he is one of the world’s best ventriloquists — in the one-act “The Evils of Tobacco.”

There are, however, successes elsewhere. Rei Asami, the principal actress, shows off her talent to good effect in a range of contrasting roles, while veteran director Kumakura turned in a solid, understated performance, using his famed voice to great effect.

Humor is, of course, deeply rooted in the culture from which it springs, so in a translated play we should perhaps be understanding if the comic moments fail to hit home. This is especially so in the case of short plays, with no time for leisurely scene-setting. Here, two plays in particular — “The Alien Corn,” about a Russian and a French aristocrat verbally vying for cultural superiority, and “The Sneeze,” about a gob of spittle and associated social mores — would have benefited from being made more accessible to a Japanese audience.

Despite these reservations, however, the chance to see such unusual, early Chekhov comedies was most welcome, and it was interesting, too, to watch a program performed in different styles. It would be good if the NNT, being to an extent free of the commercial constraints restricting other venues’ repertoires, planned more projects like this. It is time the NNT rose to the challenge of leading the Japanese theater scene, and positioned itself closer to the cutting edge.