In July 2009, Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre’s strategic relaunch with an artistic director in place of the suits who formerly oversaw its bookings was somewhat muted.
That was because the sets for productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Merchant of Venice” by England’s renowned Propeller Theatre Company — the maiden offerings of TMET’s new creative supremo, then 53-year-old Hideki Noda — had somehow ended up in Hong Kong via China instead of Tokyo.
Undeterred, however, the actor/playwright/director told TMET’s staff to hastily make replacements so the shows could go on — declaring at a press conference: “I take this bad luck as a rare chance to show what is the essential element and the real power of theater — which is the actors.”
And sure enough, audiences for those debut plays were treated to a great experience.
After that, who would have thought Noda would be hit by serious bad luck again five years later — on the eve of the opening night of a Japan-South Korea production of his 1986 classic “Hanshin (Half Gods)” at the Myeongdong Theater in Seoul. This time, it wasn’t a problem with the sets, but one involving an “essential element” of theater in the person of lead actress Joo In-young, who succumbed to a bout of appendicitis.
Based on an eponymous 1984 masterpiece by Japan’s leading creator of girls manga, Moto Hagio, “Half Gods” centers on Siamese twins Maria (played by Jun Sung-min) and Shura (Joo) — the former beautiful but mentally retarded and the latter amazingly bright, but ugly.
As the pair share one heart, they are doomed to die if they are not separated before they turn 10 — in which case one will live at the expense of the other. However, the old doctor who performs the operation, and his genius mathematician twin (both played by Oh Yong), devise a “magic way” to ensure Maria lives on — but with Shura’s brainpower. Whether their pursuit of perfection works as planned is never made entirely clear.
Back in Seoul, meanwhile, after selecting the play’s 12-strong cast from 400 Korean actors he auditioned there in spring, Noda returned in August to work on the staging. And fortunately, the afflicted actress recovered in time for the curtain to rise just one week later than had been planned.
However, that postponement posed a perplexing question, occurring as it did in the mecca of Asian musicals where understudies for sick or injured cast members are the norm.
On opening night, when asked by this writer why there had been no stand-in for the ailing actress, Chung Myung-joo, chief producer at the Myeongdong Theater, said, “All 12 cast members have equally important parts, so to be honest it’s not feasible to hire an understudy for each of them — though if we and TMET take this play abroad in the future, we will probably have a male and a female understudy in case of anything unexpected.”
In Seoul’s strongly musical-inclined theater scene, the Myeongdong Theater is a renowned hub of regular-scale straight plays in a sea of very small venues for rising young dramatists. “So following Noda’s success here last year with his great play ‘The Bee’ with an English cast,” Chung said, “we decided to collaborate on ‘Half Gods’ this time.”
As to why Noda’s works have appealed to Seoul’s audiences ever since his debut hit there with “Red Demon” with a Korean cast in 2005, Chung said, “He knows how to stimulate people’s imagination and how to ‘play’ in theater creation — as in having fun. Also, his scenes or characters can instantly change into something else, and audiences here enjoy those imaginative transitions a lot.”
In the case of “Half Gods,” this writer — who long ago saw the original — wondered what an all-South Korean cast might add to the work. After seeing the opening night’s show, though, the answer was as clear as it was simple: unfailingly well-trained actors compared with their patchy Japanese counterparts.
In fact, Chung later pointed out that acting is now the most desired occupation among young Koreans and, as almost every university has a drama department, the country probably has the most drama schools per head in the world. So, with such a large pool of trained local talent, Chung said “Noda knew he could present this old work in a new, vivid way with machine-gun dialogue and movement — and so be sure Japanese audiences would enjoy his new-look ‘Half Gods,’ too.”
Certainly this audience member was so glued to the opening-night performance — and Joo’s portrayal of Shura in particular — that for a long time I even totally forgot about reading the English subtitles.
As Noda declared back in 2009, that was theater’s “essential element” at work: the power of great actors.
“Half Gods”‘ runs Oct. 24-31 at the Playhouse at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro. For details, call 0570-010-296 or visit www.geigeki.jp.