Written by English playwright Richard Bean, and premiered in London in 2010, “The Big Fellah” spans 30 years in the lives of U.S. supporters of the Irish Republican Army as that movement fought to sever Northern Ireland’s ties to the United Kingdom and unify the island of Ireland.
For any dramatists anywhere, staging a work on such a complex subject that’s still so sensitive would be a major challenge; that it’s about to open in Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast, then tour nationwide, is really quite remarkable. And, as the acclaimed director Shintaro Mori also teams up here with stage and screen star Seiyou Uchino, this production is surely set to be a prime landmark of Japan’s theater world in 2014.
For Mori, 37, though, the play’s problems have not all been geopolitical. “I and all the fans of his films and TV dramas know how emotional and enthusiastic Uchino can be,” last year’s winner of a prestigious Yomiuri Theater Award said with a laugh as we chatted at Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo recently. “So every day I have been telling him to play it really cool in his role as David Costello, the passionate Big Fellah who heads the IRA’s New York branch.”
For Uchino, 45, though — with family breakdown, betrayal, intrigue, violence and booze swirling around his character along with plenty of Irish humor — that was only part of the problem.
“First of all, the Big Fellah is not an Irishman living in Ireland, yet he has devoted his whole life to what for him is the sacred cause of the IRA,” he pointed out. “Also, I have to show him as a cold-blooded leader in public, but reveal the kind of volcanic emotion inside him as well,” he explained after entering the meeting room to join Mori and I for what became a double interview for the JT’s Stage page.
You’ve both said you have done a lot of studying for this play — so what kind of things have you learned?
Shintaro Mori: Actually, because the play starts in 1972, when IRA offensives were on the rise, and finishes just before the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001, we see a transition of global concern from the Western to the Islamic world. Also, in covering a 30-year period it brilliantly portrays frictions between the changing nature of society and the IRA, as well as in each person’s private life.
Seiyou Uchino: The incidents in the play would probably be familiar to most Irish or English people, but in school history lessons we only really heard about Bloody Sunday in 1972 [when British soldiers killed some 14 people taking part in a civil rights march in Northern Ireland]. So, to study the background I’ve watched lots of news videos and spent ages reading.
Also, though Koshi Odashima’s translation into Japanese is fantastic, I soon realized that as an actor I needed to read the English text to really get the nuance and rhythm of the dialogue, which is so cool and vivid. Though that took a long time, it’s been really worthwhile.
Worthwhile, yes — but it sounds hard.
SU: Well yes, but for example one of my lines in the script is, “Jinsei oshimai ni naru yo” — which translates into English as, “Your life would be over.” But when I checked the original, it read, “It will f-ck with you” — so I stressed that “f-ck” feeling by saying, “Oshimaidazo!” (laugh).
So overall, I think we’re better voicing our lines here in a harsh way rather than as soft narrative sounds.
SM: The other young actors have followed Uchino’s lead, and in read-throughs and rehearsals they’ve had the Japanese script and the English text side by side so they can try to get tips from the original. For example, there’s all that use of “f-cking” and “f-ck” in Richard Bean’s script — words that have no direct equivalent in Japanese. But if the actors know that word was there in their lines, they can adjust their delivery to get that feeling across.
Actually, checking the original English has helped in many ways. In fact we’ve got so many tips that I think we’d rather do it in English! Ha-ha — just joking.
What’s the point of staging this play now in Tokyo?
SM: I wanted to do it while people still clearly remember 9/11, as I think the global situation is in transition now even though we Japanese don’t see the real state of the world as we just believe the news on TV without asking questions. So, though this play doesn’t impose explanations, it does help in seeing a bigger picture of what’s going on, which makes our life richer and deeper.
In fact, since reading this play my view of 9/11 has changed because I didn’t know lots of Americans made donations to the IRA. Hence, I suppose the playwright was expressing a sarcastic contradiction between that and U.S. condemnation of the 9/11 terrorism.
So, while theater can provide excitement, it can also question things that pass us by in our hectic daily lives.
SU: As Mori just said, this play poses many questions to the audiences — but I think it’s simply great entertainment as well. For example, we only catch glimpses of the commanding Big Fellah’s other life as David Costello with his wife and a junkie daughter, but I want to arouse the audience’s imagination about that dreadful but unseen side. If I can do that, the play can be enjoyed as a rich human drama without requiring any deep knowledge of the IRA.
Both of you joined traditional theater companies in Tokyo early on in your careers [Uchino went to Bungaku-za, Mori to En]. Why did you do that rather than head for the more mass-market worlds of film or TV?
SU: First, theater is about live performance, so — in the same way as a live concert — it involves the audience. If audiences see a good performance, though they may appear to be sitting there quietly, their brains are producing lots of adrenaline and the actors sense that energy and can share the excitement. Such interaction is part of the magic of theater, I think. Secondly, in theater people can sense the dark depths of a human being, or even minute details that TV or movies normally don’t focus on. That’s why I love theater.
SM: In a theater there’s no camera angles or zoom, so minor characters exist on the stage together with the hero or heroine, and audiences see them in the same frame. Hence, although the leading actors may have the important lines, audiences also recognize others’ existences as well. That makes live theater more real and exciting than films, so I could never get bored with it at all.
“The Big Fellah” runs May 20-June 8 at Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo, then tours to Hyogo, Niigata, Toyohashi in Aichi and Otsu in Shiga. For more details, call Setagaya Public Theatre at 03-5432-1515 or visit setagaya-pt.jp.