“You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!”
(“King Lear,” Act 2, Scene 4)
‘King Lear” is often seen as a rite of passage for actors, one of the ultimate roles to conquer and a grueling meditation on battles fought and lost.
It is no coincidence that Tokyo’s venerable Bungakuza Theatre chose to stage the tragedy first performed around 1605 as the culmination of its Shakespeare Festival launched in February 2014 with a double bill of the comedies “Measure for Measure” (circa 1604) and “As You Like It” (circa 1599).
Directed for the second time by Hitoshi Uyama, 61, who first staged it in 1998 at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, and featuring the renowned Toru Emori, 70, making his debut in the title role, this production’s entire run sold out in a single day.
Nonetheless, despite the pressure that comes with such expectations, just two weeks before the Jan. 6 opening night, Uyama kindly made time to speak to this writer about the upcoming work and his views on Shakespeare. I started by asking:
With this being your second production of “King Lear,” what particular themes are you exploring this time?
Well, the older I get, the more I experience the fundamental issues that come with aging. To me, all Shakespeare’s tragedies are about the collapse of life’s foundations, such as identity, loyalty, love and vitality — and “King Lear” is the quintessential story of the death of body and soul.
In this production, I aim to capture on stage the great energy that comes from that collapse.
At the same time, aging is a source of rebirth, because if the previous generation didn’t pass on, the new generation couldn’t survive — so “King Lear” is also about changing generations.
When I directed the play in 1998, I discovered in the old king a strong rebellious spirit able to confront the enormity of this world. This time, though, I’m more focused on how to accept and deal with aging and death.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the production for Emori?
Without doubt, remembering all the lines. That is itself is directly connected to the issue of aging. In the case of theater, the audience can experience the difficulty that each actor goes through on stage, like watching athletes pushing their limits in a stadium. So, as we approach the first night, we know what direction we are heading toward, but how to physicalize and fully express that on stage is tantamount to the hardship and miracle of giving birth.
What makes Shakespeare special in your view?
One of the most characteristic things about Shakespeare is that he has a very dense DNA structure, which stands out in comparison to other playwrights. For example, Hamlet’s actual lines have been alive for more than 400 years, though their DNA is drawn from long before and it continues to extend long after Shakespeare’s time, transmitted through actors who play Hamlet and audiences who witness them. So Shakespeare’s life span is far greater than my own, yet I am part of that DNA which will continue on to future generations.
There is also a sense of universality in Shakespeare that’s brought about by conflicting elements such as virtue and vice, men and women, and summer and winter. These dichotomies, which create energy lie at the core of the plays and make them universal.
“King Lear” runs till Jan. 22 at the Bungakuza Atelier Theatre in Shinanomachi, Tokyo. For details, visit www.bungakuza.com.