One of the world’s foremost directors of Shakespeare, one of Japan’s most outstanding translators of the Bard and a star-studded Japanese cast have teamed up to bring “The Merchant of Venice” to Tokyo this month.
Englishman Gregory Doran, who staged the most productions — five — in last year’s acclaimed “Complete Works” series by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford-upon-Avon admits to having been a “Shakespeare addict” since he listened to a record of Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when he was a child.
At the age of 13, Doran recalls, he told his mother that he wanted to be a Shakespeare actor after she took him to see his first Shakespeare play, “As You Like It,” in Stratford. Despite treading the boards many times, however, Doran, 48, says he realized his greatest strength was not as an actor but as a director.
In that capacity, he is collaborating with 47-year-old English literature scholar Shoichiro Kawai, who is known for his best-selling, sparkling,original 2001 book “Hamlet wa Futotte Ita (Hamlet was Fat).” The relative of Shoyo Tsubouchi, the first to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into Japanese, Kawai says with a laugh that he had no choice except to be an English scholar — “especially as I loved theater but missed the chance to join (leading director) Hideki Noda’s drama group when we were at Tokyo University together.”
Both men sit down to explain their approaches to Shakespeare at the bayside Ginga/Galaxy Theatre in Tennozu, where the Horipro Company is putting on “The Merchant of Venice” for a long 6-week run — long by local standards, though not Western ones.
“I direct for the 13-year-old boy I was, up in the gallery in the theater watching a play for first time,” Doran says. “I think Shakespeare’s plays are thrillingly exciting if they’re acted well — but there’s nothing worse if they’re done badly, and the two are very close, actually. My good friend John Barton at the RSC said to me that ‘Eighty percent of good directing is good casting. So I cast the leads, and then my job is mainly to look after the guys playing little parts and try to give them good inspiration.’ “
Kawai believes “Shakespeare is almost like music,” and concentrates on rhythm in his translations. “As a conductor, you can make the same music sound different,” he says. “Normally, we just translate the meaning of plays, but with Shakespeare, the rhythm is integral to the drama.”
Doran has brought several productions to Japan since his debut here with “Macbeth” in 2000, but with English casts. Collaborations between English-based directors and Japanese casts are on the rise in Japan, and, together with longer runs, might reasonably be expected to raise standards enough so that actors, directors and theater staff presently working semiprofessionally will be able to devote more of their lives to drama.
For this project, Doran wanted to do his first-ever staging of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” But after talking to actor Masachika Ichimura (who plays Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in “The Merchant of Venice”), he realized that as his Japanese is very limited, it would be too time-consuming to explore that work with Japanese actors and it would be better to do something he had done before. “That was definitely the right decision,” he says with a laugh.
Doran was also influenced by Ichimura’s desire to play Shylock — and by curiosity as to how “The Merchant of Venice” would be received, not only with regard to its alleged anti-Semitism (Doran claims the play has been “hijacked by history” following the Holocaust), but also its discrimination against lower classes, women and gays.
When he did “Othello” in Japan 3 years ago, Doran says he was skeptical when Japanese told him that none of the racism on stage between white Venetians and the black Othello existed in this country. Consequently, he was delighted to stage ‘The Merchant of Venice” to challenge Japanese with its unequal treatment of minorities.
Doran, who is openly gay, is especially interested to address what some scholars have interpreted to be the homosexual relationship between Antonio and Bassanio — which he says is quite clear in Shakespeare’s text “but was lost when Victorian burglars cut all the Bard’s rude parts.”
At this remark, Kawai’s jaw drops.
“The play is basically a comedy,” Kawai argues, with a wry look on his face. “As (Anton) Chekhov said, ‘life is tragedy,’ and to a certain extent it is for Shylock. But we are meant to regard the play from a different viewpoint than his, and audiences have to try to understand many different viewpoints and different kinds of people. For instance, people can enjoy the play as a folklore story about Portia (the heiress Bassanio wants to marry), who is denied her freedom by her father (who makes exorbitant demands of her suitors) and is dreaming of a prince coming to rescue her. But modern audiences can also see a gender problem there, one that certainly used to pertain in male-centered Japan where a father’s will was paramount.
“However, society has changed and there are many different ways of reading this play — and many ways of living. I want Japanese audiences to accept everything that is happening on the stage and open their minds and just accept what Greg is presenting here.”
Doran continues to press the gender button: “It’s fascinating how Shakespeare can create multidimensional characters, and Portia is a wonderfully complex character. For instance, it’s amazing to see how she copes, after she is eventually married, when her husband comes home with Antonio, who declares his love for her husband, Bassanio. I think Tokyo is a parallel to this Venetian merchant’s story, and Japan is opening to the world as Venice was in those days.”
To this, Kawai said he hoped Japanese audiences wouldn’t “receive this production as just another bit of Shakespearen entertainment.” “There is a rich hint here for Japanese to live in this modern world,” he explained. “We have been living in a secluded, ordered society, but things are different now. For example, Portia’s dilemma — whether to obey her father when there is a new way of living as a woman — is much like that now facing young Japanese women.”
As for working with his cast, Doran marvels at their ensemble skill — what he calls their “morphic field,” a zoological term for shoals of fish and flocks of birds that don’t bump into each other. “It’s fabulous to watch the actors create such a morphic field in harmony.”
As for Doran’s future projects, he said he hoped he “wasn’t letting the cat out of the bag” by saying that he, Kawai and the English writer Michael Poulton “are now working on a collaboration play about Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa and William Adams, the first Englishman to come to Japan.” And surely that’s still more good news for theater in Tokyo.
“The Merchant of Venice” runs till Sept. 30 at the Ginga/Galaxy Theatre, a 3-minute walk from Tennozu Isle Station on the Rinkai or Tokyo Monorail lines. It then tours Hyogo Performing Arts Center Oct. 4-7. For more details, call (03) 3490-4949 or visit www.gingeki.jp
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