English playwright David Hare’s acclaimed 2002 West End hit “The Breath of Life” this week launches a new series titled “Drama for Two: the power of dialogue” at the New National Theatre Tokyo.

Featuring the talents of Mayumi Wakamura and Seika Kuze, the Japanese premiere of this drama with a cast of just two promises to be an intimate portrayal of life, love and — most importantly in the view of its director, Ryuta Horai — communication.

“It’s a play where two women are able to express their beliefs, to argue, contradict each other and engage in debate just using words, something the Japanese are not good at,” 38-year-old Horai told The Japan Times recently. “Yet we must use words to get to know a person, and we must learn to listen to another person. Through this give-and-take dialogue, we can build a slightly closer relationship, and it’s something important for Japanese people — especially in this day and age — to learn to do.”

Although the rising young director and writer in both film and theater normally oversees his own works, for the first time here he has directed a Western play in translation — which he admits has its advantages.

“When it’s a play you’ve written yourself, the actors think you have all the answers and ask you lots of questions and you feel obliged to answer them,” he explained. “But this time it’s not my play, so there are lots of things I don’t understand either. We talk about these things together and decide how to handle them.”

Meanwhile, Hare’s challenging work was rendered into Japanese by the award-winning translator Mayuko Tokizawa, who is known for her talents in transposing contemporary Western drama into naturally colloquial Japanese.

Explaining how she worked and reworked the script with Horai, Tokizawa said, “We had many meetings, but every one was meaningful. Horai is a successful playwright himself, so it was such a challenge for me to be able to answer any questions he came up with, because he really knows what has to be discussed in order to make a great production. He wanted to know everything about the play — even in detail I suppose David Hare didn’t think about.”

Later, Horai added: “Audiences don’t often have the opportunity to see such a well-translated script in production. A drama with just two characters is very difficult, since each one has such a vital role and must display so many emotions and expressions. The actors need to be creative in portraying these expressions through a great amount of dialogue.”

Horai also credited the hard work of Wakamura and Kuze, adding, “We spent a great deal of time in discussion to prepare for the play, talking about the meaning behind the dialogue and why the characters say what they do.”

The original sold-out London production featured two of Britain’s greatest stage actresses of modern times, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, who faced off as a wife and mistress, confronting each other over one day and a night, arguing life and philosophy after their shared husband and lover, respectively, jilted them both for a third woman — a young American.

Set on the peaceful little Isle of Wight off England’s south coast, the play nimbly touches on old-world cynicism versus new-world idealism; the place of fiction within reality; and what it means, most achingly, to be alive.

The guarded conversations that gradually unfold these tangled themes lead to genuine realizations about life, Horai said, explaining, “We wanted to avoid controlling emotions. I hope that rather than us deliberately trying to elicit a particular reaction from the audience, each person will react to the dialogue in his or her own way.

“Some may feel pain, while others may feel profoundly moved and others may not really get what is going on — but I feel this kind of honest reaction to the dialogue of the two characters is an important aspect of this play.”

In summing up the play’s universal appeal, the director said, “On the surface, the play centers around a conflict between a wife and mistress, but in a broader sense, it’s also about how people come to understand each other, or not, through meaningful conversation. It’s about looking back on one’s life and being extremely self-critical of how one has lived — and deciding what to do with one’s life from now on.

“I really want young people to see this play, and although men may be hesitant to go, I think they’ll discover it has lots of interesting depth for everyone in the audience.”

“The Breath of Life” runs at the New National Theatre Tokyo until Oct. 26, then plays at Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya on Nov. 1. For more details, call 03-5352-9999 or visit nntt.jac.go.jp play or www1.gcenter-hyogo.jp.

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