Universal comedy without errors

Mansai Nomura takes charge at Setagaya Public Theater


Hold on to your seats: We’re going back to the essence of theater — entertainment. “The Kyogen of Errors,” directed by and starring 36-year-old Mansai Nomura, is a fitting way to celebrate his five-year appointment as artistic director of the Setagaya Public Theater (SEPT), which was announced two weeks ago.

Kyogen, a comedy style that originated in the Muromachi Period (1392-1573), is in Nomura’s blood — he is the son of one of kyogen’s leading lights, Mansaku Nomura, and a grandson of its late living national treasure, Manzo Nomura. This unusual play is, as the name suggests, a kyogen version of “The Comedy of Errors,” one of Shakespeare’s early side-splitters.

It’s a promising combination. “The Comedy of Errors” follows the mistaken-identity adventures of two sets of male identical twins, none of whom knows he has a twin, and features the kind of broad humor also found in kyogen. Before the eventual emotional reunion of the four, Shakespeare puts the two master-and-servant pairs through social and familial chaos. In the process, he imbues even this farcical scenario with a weighty subtext: If we treated everyone as family, would we behave the way we do?

“The Kyogen of Errors” was first performed at SEPT’s home base in Sangenjaya in April 2001 — and then played by invitation at London’s Globe Theatre that July, where it was well received by audiences and critics alike. Now it’s back in Tokyo, in a much more powerful and refined form, having gained greatly from its London sojourn.

There are English subtitles on LCD displays beside the stage, and major directorial revisions to reflect the audience-participatory, open-air theater conditions of London’s Globe, which is a faithful replica of the setting where Shakespeare’s works were first staged.

From the moment audience members enter the auditorium, they are confronted with masked, black kimono-clad actors. Some move around the auditorium yelling and chanting “Yayakoshiya! (It’s so complicated!),” a phrase that’s a leitmotif of this production; others sit among the audience until the house lights dim. This encounter primes the audience for the unexpected and entertaining drama that follows.

However, this “introduction” also sets the kyogen tone — the dialogue is pared down, as befits a form rooted in Zen. Dressing his actors in kimono and employing simple sets, Mansai effectively translates the staging of “Comedy of Errors” for a Japanese audience. There are other nods to Japanese members of the audience, too, with some inspired appropriation of scenes from “Onmyoji,” a film set in the Heian Period. Such touches have made Mansai the idol he is now in Japan, while yet other directorial touches — such as a parody of the climactic scene from “Titanic” — help the work cross over to non-Japanese audiences.

Of course, many Japanese have never seen kyogen either, yet the audience at Sangenjaya loved it, just as London audiences lapped up the earlier version. That the play is a success in both cases is down to Mansai’s skill in knitting together Shakespeare and kyogen, without a trace of pretension, to create a production that seems to reach right back to the origin of theater — illuminating public entertainment.

To achieve this he uses some simple and symbolic kyogen-style techniques, such as masks to plainly indicate which set of twins is which (as they never all meet until the end, one person acts two roles). Likewise one pair of master and servant always uses stage left, the other make entrances and exits via stage right. This simple staging and the lively acting of the principals, Mansai and Yukio Ishida, make this a vivid and enjoyable production.

It’s good to see a production mature like a work in progress. Since the first performance at SEPT last April, “The Kyogen of Errors” has improved a lot. Indeed, it’s now approaching perfection as a piece of international theater, accessible to all. As proof of this, audience members were drawn from all age groups, and the warm applause as the curtain fell showed clearly how much they had enjoyed this special midsummer’s-night entertainment.

Mansai’s triumph with “The Kyogen of Errors” is well-earned, however. His ideas on Shakespeare, kyogen and contemporary theater have been a long time in the developing. In an essay in the current issue of PT (Public Theater) magazine, Mansai explains what he was aiming at with this production:

“I wanted to present Shakespeare’s world using kyogen methods in a contemporary way,” he writes. “I wished to create a new form of Shakespeare that only Japanese could do, not by copying any Western way. I felt I had succeeded in this when I heard the audience at The Globe in London applauding loudly at the end and chanting ‘yayakoshiya.’ ”

The director first began bridging Western and Eastern arts about 10 years ago, when he studied drama in England in 1994 for a year on a government-sponsored program. He has also worked long and hard to bridge another gulf — that between Japan’s traditional drama (noh, kyogen) and contemporary theater forms. He has single-handedly created a modern-style kyogen for today’s theatergoers, by using an “electric bulletin” display to translate much of the arcane language that it commonly uses. He has also frequently acted outside the closed world of kyogen, and with foreign companies, and has collaborated with other big names on the Japanese theater scene, recently working with Yukio Ninagawa on “Oedipus Rex.”

Explaining his theatrical vision at a press conference on Aug. 7 following his appointment as artistic director of SEPT, Mansai said that it was his time in England that first made him aware of the wider role of theater. He saw how the dramatic medium could tackle social issues and challenge its audience. He also said he imbibed a spirit of “give and take” from England, and believes now is the time to give something of his artistic experience to the public in Japan. In his new position at SEPT, he explained, he aims to create a truly public theater that works toward the benefit of society.

So, Mansai has stepped out toward us, the public — and what can we give him back? His appointment could usher in a significant and exciting new chapter in Japanese theater history — if audiences are as open as Mansai to new ideas that make the arts more relevant to contemporary issues. After all, with the dire state this country is in, now is surely a time to think about the meaning of “give and take” in our life as Japanese.