Between his return from the United States after World War II, and his death in 1956, playwright Bertolt Brecht, with his Berliner Ensemble, created one of the finest acting companies in the world — one which became a testing-ground for his theatrical exploration and challenged the theatrical conventions of the day.

While alerting audiences to the devices of dramatization, Brecht’s productions also allowed them to critically distance themselves from the stories being told onstage. He introduced non-naturalistic devices, such as caricatures and direct address, into the acting style of the Berliner Ensemble, and there was interaction with audiences and musicians onstage. These were all parts of a theatrical approach that he described as “the alienation effect.”

As a committed communist, Brecht invested his theater with Marxist thinking, and his plays can be viewed as parables of a society whose goal is to effect change. In Brecht, there is an underlying seriousness, but his plays also depend a great deal on comedy, and are imbued with a crude bluntness.

Now being directed by Kazuyoshi Kushida at The Setagaya Public Theatre, “Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis (The Caucasian Chalk Circle )” opens in a rural village in the Caucasus after World War II.

At the heart of the original piece is a play-within-a-play by a troupe of actors who come to entertain the community with a performance about a dispute over a child. In this, Grusha, a servant girl, risks her life to save the son of the governor during a civil war long ago. When the child is brought back to the city by Grusha, a judge named Azdak, like a modern Solomon, must decide whether to give the child back to his birth mother, who cast him aside, or to let the servant girl keep him.

Here, though, the veteran modern drama and kabuki director Kushida (who also plays Azdak) creates a different and fascinating take on Brecht’s original, merging a meticulous dramatic sensibility with robust Brechtian tradition. He allows a highly participatory atmosphere in rehearsals, during which cast members are encouraged to make suggestions and try new ideas.

Original music performed live by Naoyuki “Bibi” Asahina incorporates Central Asian stringed instruments, Nigerian drums, a Dixieland brass band and Tibetan throat singing to create a beautiful score adding eerie texture to the staging and the costumes, which resemble Maoist Red Army uniforms, designed by two-time Academy Award winner Emi Wada.

For the lead role of Grusha, Kushida has cast star actress Takako Matsu, who wowed audiences in the title role of a recent production of “Miss Saigon” in Tokyo. There is a vulnerability and softness in Matsu that plays well in the role of the heroic peasant woman who is running from the evil “ironshirts” (modeled on the Nazi brownshirts) to save an abandoned baby that she has been forced to protect.

In between rehearsals, I, a fellow cast member, interviewed Kushida and Takako Matsu about their roles, their approach to acting and their inspiration for this production of Brecht.

How did you get started in the theater?

Takako Matsu: My father is a kabuki actor. Ever since I was a small girl I have loved all types of theater — kabuki, straight plays and musicals.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be an actress?

TM: When my father’s mother was in a coma he was very emotionally exhausted. He was performing in a play then. He put the feelings from his daily life into his performance. I was very moved to see this. I thought that was the kind of job I would like to do myself.

Where did you get your training?

TM: My debut was on television in the early 1990s, when I starred in Taiga Drama’s “Hana no Ran.” I was given my break then and I have been learning by trial and error in my stage and film work ever since.

Is there a particular key to playing Grusha?

TM: She is very human. She has courage and survival instincts and she is also very emotional.

Is there anything in particular that you want to express with this role?

TM: There is a scene where two women are placed in a circle drawn on the ground and asked to pull a baby apart to see who is the rightful mother. My character chooses to let the baby go rather than hurt it. If I can show the audience one human being protecting another, I will have achieved my aim with this part.

I noticed you crying in the scene today with Shosuke Tanihara. How did you get to that state?

TM: I was actually surprised myself. Shosuke has such a beautiful, gentle face. When I played the scene as Grusha, my mind was confused. I was happy to see him. There were so many things that I wanted to say. I felt very unsettled and then I burst into tears.

(To Kazuyoshi Kushida) What inspired you to direct the Brecht plays “The Good Woman of Sezuan” (2003) and, currently, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle?”

KK: In 1969 I went to West Germany to see the Berliner Ensemble. In Japan we tend to think that Brecht is very difficult, very conceptual, very steeped in socialism. But what I saw in Berlin was a desire to entertain an audience, and at the same time to have an objective point of view running through the play.

I had an opportunity to return to Germany after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and see the Berliner Ensemble again. I felt that they had maintained the style and form but had lost the essence. Theater is a medium that is alive, so you need to change according to what is going on with the times. I would like to interpret Brecht in a way that is suitable for 2005 Japan.

What do you think is the key to playing Azdak?

KK: What is important in playing him is to express his anarchist nature. He is very shy and timid. As a timid person he is the last one who would be a rebellious leader. I hope the audience will see him as a comic character.

Are there any roles or plays that you would like to direct in the future?

KK: Now I am interested in directing Goethe’s “Faust.” It is a tale that has been told in many versions. I would like to go back to the origin of the story and to make it more human, to make a close connection to the audience.

You are a teacher of acting. What do you think is most important for an actor?

KK: If there is something that you want to communicate, to convey to other people — that should be the motivation of theatrical expression.

What did you discover in the rehearsals of the plays?

KK: Quite a lot. A play is not something that you sit and think logically about. You must discover your brain thinking in every part of your body. By working with other people there are quite a lot of discoveries.

Is there anyone in your life that has inspired you?

KK: Recently I realized that I was very much inspired by my father, Magoichi Kushida. He was a writer and philosopher. When I was young I wanted to show that I was completely different from my father. But now I realize that there are many things about him that inspired me.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.