During the five years he was Artistic Director of Setagaya Public Theatre, 61-year-old Makoto Sato began calling and e-mailing his old friend and stage colleague Renji Ishibashi, 63, in an attempt to persuade him to take the role of King Lear, with him (Sato) as director.

Although the two had often worked together to great acclaim, with Ishibashi notably taking the lead role in Sato’s “A Life in the Theatre” by David Mamet at the theatre in 1997, Ishibashi stalled. His hesitation, it seems, was due to a reluctance to portray his own personal mortality and aging through the dramatic prism of the quintessentially aged, sorrowful and increasingly distracted figure of King Lear.

However, despite Ishibashi confiding in a recent interview that he was worried about playing King Lear because he was afraid he “could not hide anything,” and that he felt “timid to disclose my real side too much through this dramatic masterpiece,” he eventually gave in, resulting in the current production of King Lear at the Setagaya Public Theatre, which is now under the artistic direction of Mansai Nomura, who took over in April 2002.

To gain Ishibashi’s eventual agreement, though, Sato had to acquiesce to various staging and directorial decisions that in the end are main features of this production. Overall, it has to be said, these decisions seem to have mellowed this heart-wrenching play too much and to have bypassed the real meaning of Shakespeare’s epic human drama.

The sound of the bass drums of Kodo, the world-famous taiko group from Sado Island, heralds the opening of the play. Then, behind a sheer black curtain a torch flames up, suggesting the great power of King Lear at the opening of the play. In the drama that is about to unfold, we see his authority waning as age and infirmity, both mental and physical, take their toll.

Then the curtain opens and the stage is revealed, occupied almost entirely by a huge, very steep flight of white steps, with only a perilously narrow strip in front of it for the actors to perform on. To either side of the steps, curtains of shiny, silvery chains mark the exits and entrances for the actors.

The steps, which dominate the set, impede the cast’s movements; as do their gorgeous costumes by former supermodel Sayoko Yamaguchi, with their colorful central Asian ethnic style and big, heavy necklaces that slow down the actors’ movements and distract the attention as well. This is only to qualify, not to denigrate, the direction by Sato, who excels in some wonderful visual effects.

For example, when the now-blind King Lear, having been thrown out of both his daughters’ houses, is led to the heath by Poor Tom (Edgar, the son of the Duke of Gloucester, in disguise), we are treated to an impressive projection on to the back of the stage, in which images of rainstorms and windswept trees play out. However, the stage effects, consciously or not, reduce the actors’ roles to those of bit players in this scene, which should be a defining moment in the play.

In addition, the new translation into Japanese by Hiroyuki Kondo, which the translator himself says was intended to “bring Shakespeare up to date” by using colloquial Japanese words and expressions, regrettably suffers from poor diction by the actors, making it difficult to hear.

I liked many of the individual ideas in this production, but, when put together onstage, they failed to amount to the sum of their parts. This may be because even though each idea was expertly executed, individual elements, whether lighting, sound, costume or set, were left competing for prominence.

This raises the question of why Shakespeare’s plays have survived for more than four centuries? Surely it is because the playwright touches on human experience no matter the place or time. Many directors, when confronted with Shakespeare’s greatness, have tried to put their own stamp on it, but, as here, many have also lost the meaning of the work in the process.

Unfortunately, during this three-hour-long production, the actors’ grasp of the germ of “King Lear” was eclipsed by the restrictions of the vast stage set, its various effects and their cumbrous paraphernalia; as a result, Shakespeare’s massive human drama became little more than a tangential story line.

It was, too, a great shame that Ishibashi’s trademark energetic acting style was lost, except for a glimpse of brilliance when King Lear starts to lose his mind after the scene on the heath. Toru Tezuka, as the Fool, however, notably overcame all the obstacles to turn in a superb performance.

The production’s theatrical effects brought to mind Yukio Ninagawa’s numerous and outstanding Shakespearean stagings. Whereas Ninagawa’s directing always has at its heart the original play, placing the text determinedly center stage. The tragedy here was that the director’s influence dominated to the exclusion of the play’s searing and soul-searching essence.

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