Many of the hottest tickets theatergoers are after this summer come courtesy of one person — English director John Caird.
With three very different plays sweeping Tokyo this month and in July, 58-year-old Caird, an honorary associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, looks likely to take this country’s drama world by storm, just as he did 20 years ago when, with former RSC Director Sir Trevor Nunn, he brought the musical “Les Miserables” to Japan — just two years after it premiered at London’s Barbican Centre.
That grand staging has replayed here with Japanese casts often enough to have become synonymous with Western musicals in many people’s minds. This time around, however, Caird, who has staged more than 20 productions at the RSC, marks the 20th anniversary of “Les Miserables” not just with a reprise of the work but by bringing with it a true sense of the West End through a well-nigh unprecedented three-month run in a country infamous for low-risk short stagings.
To make this happen, though, requires a lot of toil, as from the opening night Friday at Teikoku Gekijo in Ginza, Caird will be working with many rotating cast members (including his wife, Japanese actress Maoko Imai, one of four taking the major role of Fantain) before the final curtain falls on Aug. 27.
Meanwhile, at the New National Theater in Shinjuku, the Caird season sees him present another of his specialties, Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Natsu no Yo no Yume),” which opened last week. This is followed in July at the Tennozu Ginga Theater by a new play titled “Kinshu (Beautiful Thread),” based on a novel by 60-year-old Japanese author Teru Miyamoto.
Why would anyone attempt such a hectic schedule? When The Japan Times tracked him down in a rehearsal room at the NNT recently, Caird explained that, in part, it reflects his keenness to make Japan a second home both personally and professionally. Amid tumult, in a fairy world where he would frequently stop the action, step into the middle and talk animatedly to his actors through an interpreter, Caird shared his ambitions.
“Recently I have started to get very interested in working more in Japan,” he said. “My wife is Japanese and we have three children, and so I wanted to work more here so my wife can work here as well, and so we can both work and live in England and Japan.”
“I chose ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ because I loved staging it in England, and also I didn’t feel comfortable doing a play I had never directed before, because it’s so difficult directing in a different language. I thought that for me it would be a good way of learning, or starting to learn, how to do Shakespeare in Japanese.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” revolves around the forest wedding of the Duke of Athens and Amazon Queen Hippolyta. The fairy King Oberon and his queen, Titania, join the celebration, but they quarrel, and Oberon tries to win back her affections with a love potion that has unintended effects on many of the guests.
The Tokyo production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is adapted from Caird’s RSC production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1989.
“But it’s also obviously a different production as the actors are very different,” Caird said.
Other innovations await Tokyo audiences, including the work of Japanese choreographer Uran Hirosaki, who joined Caird on his previous production here, the musical “Beggar’s Opera” in 2006.
“In this production, we made a woods set on two different levels. The upper level is a fairies’ world and the ground level is a wood of the mortal world. So, for example, the mortals can never go up into the spiral-stair trees, as they always inhabit a real wood at the bottom — but the fairies can go everywhere on both levels, flying and swinging up and down and around. They are very acrobatic!
“Also, I decided to have two orchestras at either side of the stage. One of them is Oberon’s orchestra, having male musicians, and the other is Titania’s and has female musicians.”
That change is no mere novelty, because as Caird says “it really reflects what the play is about — a sort of a war between genders.”
“But on a deeper level, it is about transformation. It’s about the transformative power of love that affects everybody in the play,” he said. “The wood is a metaphor for being in love and getting lost in a dark place where you don’t know where you are and it’s scary and you do stupid things. Then, when you get out of the wood, you can’t believe you did such crazy things. So, transformations go on and on in the play — Bottom (a self-important weaver) is transformed into a donkey, and Titania transforms from a queen to a little schoolgirl — and, of course, we humans are always transformed as if in a dream, so there is an ambiguity about humans’ transformation caused by their experience, specially by the power of love here.”
Brought up in Oxford after spending the first decade of his life in Montreal, where his father taught at McGill University, Caird went to the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol to train as an actor.
“But I didn’t really like acting very much and became more interested in what the other actors were doing,” he said. “So I started to feel more useful directing, as somebody who is helping the other people to be good.”
Although a 20-year veteran of the Japanese drama scene, Caird faces many of the problems confronting first-timers. “One is relying very much on the quality of the interpreter you are working with,” he explained. “Here I am very lucky to have Nao Suzuki, who was an actress herself before and is absolutely brilliant and knows theater language so well.
“Also, there is a huge difference in the way of actors working here and in England. English and American actors are strongly unionized and they have a certain number of working hours and days. But actors in Japan — all workers in Japan — they work too hard and too long hours, and they never take days off. So, in Japan, I spend a lot of time persuading people not to work so much. (laughs).”
Continuing with his cross-cultural theatrical comparisons, Caird pointed out that “English actors are more used to having ideas of their own.”
“In England, actors argue a lot with the director. Generally in Japan, and Germany, too, I think actors do what the director says,” he explained. “But in England, if actors do not agree with the director, they say so. I think people who are not used to that are a little shocked when they see it. However, I much prefer that. If an idea is good or bad, it should be challengeable. It’s not good if the actors are obedient all the time.
“You want actors to be inventing things on their own. Sometimes, Japanese actors need to be given permission to be inventive and to feel they could be a primary source of creativity.”
From the bottom up
In the third prong of his summer campaign in Japan, Caird is tackling a new original staging based on his own dramatization of Miyamoto’s 1981 best-selling novel “Kinshu,” which is being produced by the Horipro company. “Kinshu,” is a so-called epistolary-style novel (constructed entirely through exchanges of letters) between a divorced middle-age couple. They split 10 years earlier, after the man and his mistress attempted a double “love suicide” — a fatal pact that he survived but she did not. The story starts from the moment they meet again for the first time, completely unexpectedly, after that long interval.
Caird said that Horipro initially suggested he should do a European play, but instead he offered to stage a Japanese one — largely because he did not want to worry too much about the accuracy of a translation from English to Japanese. He chose “Kinshu” after reading the novel in English and being instantly impressed. “It’s a fascinating description of quite important aspects of Japanese society. It brilliantly describes the fundamental lack of cohesion between the way women think and how men think. The two genders have very different duties in life, and generally in Japanese society men and women are much more separate genders than they are in most European cultures. Lots of the events in ‘Kinshu’ depend on that. Also, it’s a wonderful work of art, memory, forgiveness and understanding. It’s a play that teaches people how to understand themselves and others better.”
Caird first adapted the English translation of the novel to a play, then worked with Japanese playwright Kiyomi Fujii, who translated his version into Japanese. The two worked together for a long time to dramatize the work for the stage and ran workshops with Japanese actors to polish the text time and again. The really hard part, though, was bridging the language gap while remaining faithful to the original. But as he always tried to use Miyamoto’s “beautiful words” as much as possible, Caird said he is pleased that the author is now happy with the final result.
Returning to his desire to devote more attention to working in Japan, Caird does not profess to being an expert in Japanese culture, but he admits to being fascinated by this nation’s “vibrant theatrical culture.”
“Especially in theater, they have so many labels — noh, kabuki, Takarazuka, small-scale and big-scale theaters and a huge commercial musicals industry, etc,” he said. “Also they have very well rooted, traditional theater companies, which have been running more than a century, so it’s an honor to be a part of such a successful, cultured field. I think it’s wonderful that so many different sorts of theaters can exist side by side and respect each other. I saw a new version of kabuki by Hideki Noda at the Kabuki-za one day, and it was so delightful to see traditional Kabuki was accepting a different way of working.”
How did all this compare with the theater world in England?
“We have, in England, an unparalleled dramatic literature. We have a theater tradition that is strongly based on language and ideas. The theater in England is very much part of intellectual debate in the nation. It’s understood as a very important national cultural debate, and that gives our theater a great prominence. But what we don’t have anywhere near as much is a strong sense of physical theater — which you have a much greater tradition of in Japan. That’s why the traditions of kabuki and bunraku are so popular and have had a big influence on British directors.
“So, one of the reasons why I work in Japan is that it’s very challenging. I can’t rely on my old suppositions about theater, for example. For directors, especially in theater, it’s important to stay fresh by giving oneself lots of new outside influences. It’s easy to get stale working in the same culture.”
Shunning the spotlight
Despite helping to turn “Les Miserables” into one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history, Caird also insists that the importance of directors is overblown.
“It’s important to remember that directors are not primal creative artists. In 60, 70 years’ time, nobody will know who Peter Brook was, or Yukio Ninagawa or John Caird. We all will be forgotten. Nobody remembers famous directors from Victorian England. . . . What we directors do is bring texts alive, and we put audiences and authors and actors in touch with each other, but we are not important.”
Even so, after this summer’s triple bill, and with Caird set on spending more of his creative life here, his is a name that looks unlikely to be forgotten in Japan anytime soon.
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