Utopia may be a little while coming in the real world, but — earthquakes and broken bullet-train lines notwithstanding — Ryutopia is not too hard to find if you are in Niigata, where it is the name given to the city’s magnificent Performing Arts Center. Opened in 1998, the vast oval-shaped glass building is located by the mouth of the River Shinano and at night it glows like a flying saucer hovering amid the darkness of the trees and gardens that surround it.
Inside this mammoth cultural and social center are restaurants, a rooftop garden and numerous areas for people to meet and enjoy wonderful views of the city. But Ryutopia also has a state-of-the art, 900-seat theater, a cavernous 1,900-seat concert hall and, on the fifth floor, a 380-seat traditional Noh stage.
It is traditional in the sense that this beautiful theater and its honey-colored cypress wood stage is covered with a roof supported by four massive timber pillars keeping three sides of the house completely open. It also features a roofed-over one-sided corridor connecting to the backstage area and a large garden visible through the building’s glass walls that is used as a backdrop when performances require it.
“King Lear — His Shadow,” the current production running there, is the second Noh adaption of Shakespeare by the Ryutopia Company following last year’s headline-grabbing staging of “Macbeth.” The critics didn’t just praise a fine original production directed by Ryutopia’s Yoshihiro Kurita (with music by Niigata’s Akira Miyagawa and a local cast), but they also dwelt on the shockwaves that ran through the conservative world of Japanese drama as a result of the fact that such a cutting-edge work had emanated from the provinces rather than one of Japan’s big cities.
This time, having chosen to do one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s later plays, the same Kurita/Miyagawa combination, with a cast of nine local actresses, looks certain to generate at least as big a buzz by the time it arrives in Tokyo on Christmas day.
All the more so, due to the casting of Kayoko Shiraishi as King Lear himself. Shiraishi is one of Japan’s leading contemporary drama actresses and a regular in Shakespeare productions by internationally renowned director Yukio Ninagawa, including most recently her celebrated portrayal of Dionyza in his masterful production of “Pericles” at the National Theatre in London in 2003.
Here, in another bold move, Kurita has edited this five act tragedy down to a two-hour staging. This he does by the simple but controversial device of dealing only with the story of the dying king, his three daughters and the court jester — cutting out the subplot involving the Duke of Gloucester and his sons Edgar and Edmund altogether.
To achieve this while also staying true to the original, Kurita has three black-robed actors on stage as narrators to fill in necessary backstory, while Shiraishi’s King Lear, the daughters and the Fool act out their roles in full. On the bare Noh stage, Shiraishi and the daughters are stunningly dressed in a gorgeous array of kimono designed by Shingo Tokihiko that combine traditional designs with bold geometric shapes on a jet-black background.
As odd as it may seem to have an actress playing Lear, from the moment Shiraishi’s rich and expressive voice first filled the auditorium, it is unlikely that anybody in the audience gave it another thought as she lorded it magnificently over the entire production. It seemed quite fitting, especially in this “edited” Lear, for a woman to be showing us the profound emotional changes the king toils through on his tragic way to attaining a state of selflessness — here likened to a Zen state of nothingness — the revelation that is the nub of this interpretation of the drama.
With little on the bare stage to offer any distraction, Shiraishi presented Lear’s insolence, waverings, confusion and sorrow so beautifully and soulfully never stretching the role too far, but simply just telling the story with minimum movement as she voiced the lines so cleverly translated by Kazuko Matsuoka into contemporary, sometimes colloquial, Japanese.
The translation was remarkable for the way Matsuoka retained the vivid rhythms of the original script so fundamental to the audience’s experience — especially in the wisely foolish banterings between Lear and the Fool. The controlled presences of the supporting actresses, the soothing piano score played live by composer Miyagawa himself — and that beautiful Noh stage — made this a truly memorable production.
In the program notes, Kurita offers some thoughts on Noh, saying: “When I think about Noh-ism, and this applies to contemporary theater as well, I believe we do not need a colorful, showy performance or overly loud voices on stage. If the actor has confidence and a firm understanding of the play, they alone are sufficient to convey the drama to the audience . . . I have found that the stony expressionlessness of a masked face [Noh actors normally wear masks] rouses people’s imagination more than flashy staging or melodramatic acting.” There were no masks in Kurita’s marvelous staging, held inside that glass temple to culture in Niigata, but there was more than enough to rouse even the most exhausted imagination to a state of theatrical ecstasy.
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