“The Kitchen,” Arnold Wesker’s sizzlingly angry play about youthful discontent in postwar Britain, opened a two-week run in Tokyo’s Shibuya last week for only its third major staging in Japan since its London premiere in 1959.
Then, in 1956, John Osborne gave a powerful new voice to the frustrations of working-class youth with his play “Look Back in Anger,” which was followed two years later by Alan Sillitoe’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” the 1960 adaptation of his book, which exposed the country’s class constraints and increasing “generation gap.”
By the time “The Kitchen” opened — at the Royal Court Theater in the West End — the trend that had given birth to the concepts of “youth” and “teenagers” as new social identities had become an unstoppable movement dubbed “Angry Young Men” — although Wesker himself still balks at the label.
In this play, written in 1957, the audience is positioned like a fly-on-the-wall of a large, steaming, frenzied kitchen in the basement of a London restaurant, where all the action — between the owner and some 30 chefs and waitresses — takes place in the course of one day. It is a huge and realistic kitchen that master Shakespearean director Yukio Ninagawa has assembled at the bottom of the valley-shaped Theatre Cocoon where the audience look down from both sides on to the action below them.
At first, a night porter, Magi (Tadashi Okada), lights the ovens. Then, one after another, workers from various countries, including England, Germany, Cyprus, France, and Ireland — turn up for work, entering from both sides of the auditorium.
Soon we hear the kitchen staff talking about a fight the night before between a young German chef called Peter (Hiroki Narimiya) and his Cypriot colleague Gaston (Hiroki Okawa) who finally took him to task for his nonstop, argumentative droning.
Then, as the kitchen’s pace heats up toward lunchtime, the audience is dished up a marvelous and mesmerizing scene of directorial choreography with the chefs all hard at work, waitresses running in and out, sometimes dropping dishes, and all kinds of histrionics going on as a new Irish chef, Kevin (Hiroki Hasegawa), strives to find his feet.
As the director, Ninagawa, says in the program, he used young assistant directors to scrutinize the production to check out each actor’s precise gestures and kitchen technique to ensure every detail was as realistic as possible — even though no food is actually there on stage.
During a lull before dinnertime, we hear the young chefs talking about their hopes and dreams — for better places to live, new girlfriends and more money. But Peter, the central character, pours scorn on such mundane aspirations, while being deeply resentful of his current situation. Though he is desperate to change his circumstances, he is unable to give concrete form to his aspirations and through his discontent he merely becomes increasingly isolated from the more happy-go-lucky others.
So for Peter, life appears to be in a deadlock both at work and also in his love affair with a married English waitress called Monique (Kaoru Sugita). Finally, he snaps and becomes hysterical, cuts the gas pipe to the ovens, smashes dishes and turns the place into a shambles so then the restaurant comes to a halt and the drama ends as the owner, Marango (Toru Shinagawa), appears yelling and demanding of Peter, “Why you are dissatisfied even though I provide you all with enough food and enough money to survive. That is everything in life, isn’t it?”
With this question hanging in the air, the other kitchen staff leave the stage and disappear into the dark of the auditorium.
The big question in my mind was why the director chose to serve up this feast of ’50s English underclass drama in the epicenter of 21st-century Japan, where class barriers have barely any meaning, consumerism sates the masses and young people do not know how to say “What a waste (Mottainai).” The answer to the question probably lies in Ninagawa’s experience of the campus activism here in the 1960s and early ’70s, and his apparent wish to broadcast a wakeup call to his audiences, reminding them that they, too, could at least rattle their social shackles.
However, as the play’s concerns with working-class life in ’50s Britain would almost certainly be lost on audiences here, Ninagawa sets out to emphasize the parts of the play concerned with the irritation and sometimes pointless anger of youth, and to do so he gives prominence to the four main young chefs — but especially Peter, whose shouting voice dominates the production.
Sadly, even such a stimulus was lost on most in the audience, who likely saw little relating to their own lives in what to them probably appeared merely a sophisticated period piece with less social relevance than Ninagawa’s usual Shakespeare.
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