I recently read a book about a mass breakout by Japanese from an Australian prisoner-of-war camp on Aug. 5, 1944. Some 1,100 Japanese tried to escape, but none succeeded — indeed, 231 died, many by their own hand using prison-issue cutlery. “Voyage from Shame” by Harry Gordon (1995) portrays this breakout as a quest for death to avoid the dishonor of capture, by people whose world view remained as blinkered as during their country’s centuries of isolation before the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

Now, 60 years later, Japan remains in many ways a country apart and still blinkered to the outside world — certainly so in respect of its exposure to innovative trends elsewhere in the performing arts.

There’s little that comes here from abroad that’s really cutting-edge, and most visiting foreign productions tend to be safe, mainstream — and of the big-money showbiz variety.

Give a warm welcome, then, to the 10th Tokyo International Arts Festival, which runs through March 28 and features 18 exciting avant-garde plays and dance stagings at nine venues around the city.

To mark its first decade, the TIF has this year not only drawn a particularly attractive range of stagings from as far afield as Palestine and Lebanon, but also chosen to reflect Japan’s tardy but ongoing opening to the world by adopting these three slogans as its theme: “Social revitalization of theater”; “Reconciliation of cultural globalism and multiculturalism”; and “Understanding Islamic culture.”

Highlights of this year’s festival include Shakespeare as you’ve never seen it before — from Kuwait and Slovakia — and an experimental production from England.

Kuwait’s “The Al-Hamlet Summit” was an entirely appropriate opening program, embodying all three of the festival’s slogans. Though based on the Bard’s great tragedy, here we encounter the tale not of a Danish prince’s anguish and revenge, but of an England-educated Kuwaiti prince who returns to his own Gulf state adrift in a sea of uncertainties over his own and his country’s future.

In this scaled-down “Hamlet” there are just six key characters from the original, plus a new one — a sinister arms dealer, played by English actor Nigel Barrett. It’s brought up to date in other ways, too. Rather than relying on ghosts to alert him to the dark forces at work, this decidedly 21st-century prince comes to suspect through reading fliers the hand of his uncle, the new King Claudius, in his father’s recent death. The sheets have apparently been printed by the Liberation Army — but who knows exactly, since deadly conspiracies are swirling all around as several parties strive to control the state’s black gold.

Far from being a pure, troubled youth, al-Hamlet is smart and shrewd — and so soon begins to discern his family’s, and especially his uncle’s, shady maneuverings, as well as the nefarious deeds of the arms trader who, he also discovers, has raped his lover, Ophelia. These machinations are played out as each character sits at a desk and states his or her position, while projected onto a screen behind them are images reflecting their true feelings and the turmoil of their society. In the wings, musicians play haunting Arabian music.

At the production’s climax, the prince spurns formal negotiations for the garb of an Islamic revolutionary, and his wronged lover straps on the belt of a suicide bomber as both resolve on change and revenge of the most direct kind.

There’s still time to catch a second incarnation of Shakespeare as you’ve never seen him before, in the guise of a Slovakian “Romeo and Juliet.” Directed by choreographer Jan Durovcik, who founded his hugely popular Jan Company in 2000, this production was first performed in 1998 in Slovakia, before being staged to great acclaim in other European countries.

Strikingly original, the production blends contemporary dance, theater, classical ballet and back-projected images with loud rock music. At the beginning, moreover, Durovcik himself appears onstage in the role of director as we are presented with a play within a play. Then, drawing on the rivalries between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which together used to constitute Czechoslovakia, Shakespeare’s fictional rivalry between Verona’s Montague and Capulet families is brought vividly to life in energetic dance scenes reminiscent of “West Side Story.”

As Durovcik explains in the program, this “Romeo and Juliet” is not about love, but about hate, with backdrop projections showing nothing but vituperative graffiti and the faces of angry activists excoriating their opponents.

What we have here is a disturbing tale, not of pure love thwarted by parochial concerns, but of a manipulated tragedy driven by hidden agendas and of a society unable to heal the wounds of past divisions. Coming from an eastern European country that was once the battlefield of a world war, this “Romeo and Juliet” is a must-see.

Finally, TIF’s offering from Britain is not a Shakespeare play, but rather a cool, mature dialogue drama, “Adrenalin Heart,” by 36-year-old Georgia Fitch, who came through The Bush Theatre’s foster program for young dramatists.

Fitch puts just two people on the stage (a simple set of a living room) in this tale of ordinary folk leading everyday lives. We see Leigh (Fiona Bell), a white Catholic single mother of two who works in a boring government office, and her new boyfriend Angel (Mark Monero), a jobless black Briton who spends his time just hanging around.

From this humdrum, parochial ordinariness, Fitch weaves a story that crosses borders. The relationship between Leigh and Angel somehow cuts to the heart of all human relationships. It is perhaps the most universal drama on offer in this celebration of the international.

“Romeo and Juliet” runs March 6-9 at Park Tower Hall, a 10-minute walk from JR Shinjuku Station. “Adrenalin Heart” runs March 4-7 at Theater Tram, a 2-minute walk from Sangenjyaya Station on the Denentoshi Line. For further details, call (03) 5428- 0337 or visit www.anj.or.jp/tif2004

As if to prove that Japanese drama is gradually learning the lessons of TIF and looking out to the wider world, the Rinkogun Company is presenting “Darumasan ga Koronda” under the direction of Yoji Sakate at the Suzunari Theater in Shimokitazawa.

Here we have a powerful, thought-provoking play about the anonymous people who lay land mines but never see the victims. As well as being critical of the Japanese government and other international bodies, the play also delivers an aggressive and sarcastic message about international political hypocrisy that should have the audience ready to storm the barricades.

With more theater like this, Japan will soon be ready to make another breakout — into the wider world of international contemporary drama.

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