Two years ago, playwright Shoji Kokami, founder of The Third Stage company in Tokyo, started working with the cutting-edge Bush Theatre in West London on his 1993 play “Trance.” One of the prime movers in the 1980s small-scale youth theater movement in Japan, the 48-year-old Kokami decided to approach the overseas production of his play in a way quite different than has been done in the past. Rather than simply bring over the original Japanese production, he produced the play, which is now approaching the end of a monthlong run, with a full British cast.
“We didn’t want it to be too specific to any country so we took out any national references that had been in the original or were introduced in the translation,” the theater’s literary manager Abigail Gonda told The Japan Times during the intermission of a recent performance in London. “We thought the fact that the story could happen anywhere was one of the play’s strong points, as there’s an estrangement to the modern world here that anyone could relate to.”
In the last few years, the staging of Japanese plays overseas has undergone a fundamental change.
Previously, the few dramas that went abroad did so at the invitation of drama festivals. There, they were presented the same as they had been in Japan, using the same casts, director and sets — but with foreign-language subtitles. Typical examples of this are productions by the internationally renowned director Yukio Ninagawa, early works written and directed by Hideki Noda and the frequent foreign productions by Satoshi Miyagi’s Ku Na’uka theater company.
In 2003, when Noda took his work “Aka Oni (Red Demon)” for a lengthy run at the prestigious Young Vic theater in London, he decided to try a new approach. Though Noda took the title role of a mysterious stranger who speaks in tongues, he cast British actors in all the other roles. Since “Red Demon,” other contemporary Japanese dramas have followed his lead.
Early this year, Koki Mitani’s “Warai no Daigaku (The Last Laugh)” was adapted by the famed English dramatist Richard Harris and directed by his compatriot Bob Tomson with a local cast. The play has already been booked for a long run in the United Kingdom in 2008.
Yoji Sakate’s “Yaneura (The Attic)” wowed New York theatergoers and Oriza Hirata’s “Tokyo Note” has been successfully staged in several European countries and the United States — in both cases using local casts and with careful plot adaptations to appeal to their overseas audiences.
Kokami’s “Trance” has a cast of just three, who play former school classmates who meet 10 years later in the one of their offices, that of the psychiatrist Reiko (Meredith MacNeill). Magazine journalist Masa (Stephen Darcy) is there as he is under the delusion that he is the emperor, while the drag queen Sanzo (Rhashan Stone) is trying to put his life back together. In what could be called a “conversation drama,” the mental distress of these three middle-aged people becomes quickly apparent.
“I did the auditioning myself and I think these three British actors are perfectly suited to their roles. When I am writing a play in Japan, I nearly always know who will be in the cast, so I can fashion the roles and lines appropriately,” Kokami told The Japan Times. “Here, though, I worked with the literary editor Tony Bicat, who the Bush Theatre provided to liaise with me as the writer and edit and adapt the text. Tony suggested that we should change the characters’ accents to reflect their individuality more clearly. Also, we changed many of Sanzo’s lines to include the latest gay jargon and some vulgar language.”
Gonda says that a concern of hers and Bicat’s had been to ensure the universal appeal that Kokami himself sought. Ironically, according to Kokami, he felt that a sense of “estrangement” had afflicted him to some extent in the course of this collaboration.
“If I say to Japanese actors that a scene is too shimeppoi (too wet), they instantly understand not to make it too gloomy or dismal,” he says. “But here, when I shouted out ‘not wet’ or ‘don’t cry’ — which I’d looked up in my dictionary — they turned and regarded me strangely and said: ‘I am not crying!’ “
“Also, in their way of working they prefer to actually try acting out their roles on the stage rather than wasting time debating the meaning of sentences — so the rehearsals went really well,” he continues.
“Japanese actors are always concerned what will be the audience response, but the English don’t care about the reaction,” Kokami notes. “This is a reflection of national character, I think: Japanese always think about ‘total harmony,’ whereas English care more about their own identity.”
After “Trance” opened on June 6, the London press gave mixed responses. Some gave it an average three stars out of five, commenting on how it showcased the fragility of people’s position in modern Japanese society. Others said they could not see the point that the play was meant to convey to English audiences. Japanese critics have also complained that they couldn’t understand the meaning of Kokami’s works when he debuted in the 1980s. Audiences, on the other hand, have continually lined up for tickets to find out what his underlying messages are.
Undeterred by detractors now, as then, Kokami said he is looking forward to continuing his activities in England for as long as possible. Ten years on from this debut stage, it will be fascinating to see what his standing as a dramatist there will be and what role contemporary Japanese drama, as a whole, will have on the world stage.
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