Stage

Language no barrier to 'The River'

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

Playwright and director Go Aoki is one of today’s many leading dramatists who emerged through the shōgekijō (small-scale youth theater) movement of the 1980s-2000s

Though he founded his theater troupe Gring in 1997, and with it specialized in detailed and realistic conversational plays, he also did a lot of writing and directing outside, gaining a reputation for being equally at home with small works and major commercial productions.

In 2009, however, Gring formally disbanded — a parting of the ways that Aoki, 47, described in our recent Japan Times interview, saying, “If you think of it like a married couple, we thought we’d want to get back together if we lived apart for a while — but we started to like being alone, so we got a divorce.”

After that, he said that so many offers of work poured in that he stopped writing his own material. Then in 2012, under the auspices of the Overseas Study Program for Artists overseen by the government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, he took himself off to London — “just wanting to see lots of plays,” as he put it.

While there, among some 200 productions he saw, one that left a deep impression was “The River” by the English playwright and director Jeremy “Jez” Butterworth, 44, who is probably best known for his play “Jerusalem.”

Premiered to audience and critical acclaim in 1995 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, an institution renowned for discovering and fostering talented playwrights and sending excellent new plays into the world, “The River” was also a hit in New York, where it wrapped up a Broadway run this month starring Hugh Jackman.

Now, though, it is set to open in Tokyo — directed by Aoki.

With a storyline that centers around a man who loves trout fishing and the woman he loves, the work is basically a conversational drama taking place between the two of them in a mountain cabin by a rushing river. However, the timeline goes back and forth — with another woman replacing the first one being among the plot’s many mysterious developments as the audience is led through a sort of labyrinth with absurdist echoes of Harold Pinter.

“When I’m writing my own plays, I can’t help but wind up with easy developments and endings intended to make you cry or laugh, and I began to feel that wasn’t enough,” Aoki said. “But I feel this work leads you somewhere that’s not so easy to understand.”

To illustrate his point he explained, “Sometimes, when I’m just looking at my mother’s face, I suddenly think, ‘Wait, am I her child, or what?’ I have these creepy moments where I just stop understanding everything for a second, and I was looking for a work that captured such a sensation. Well, I found it with this — and I thought I’d really like to produce it.”

The protagonist seems like quite a ladies’ man who has brought many women to his cabin over the years, and Aoki decided 45-year-old Kenichi Okamoto was the only one with sufficient star quality and acting chops for that complicated role Jackman played in New York.

“When I first read it, honestly I couldn’t understand what it was trying to say,” Okamoto confessed after joining our conversation. “But, I figured that ‘I don’t get it’ part was what was important.

“After all, we never know what most people are thinking day to day. That’s why I decided I couldn’t let myself get too wrapped up in the meaning of words, because I wanted to ensure you could see and understand the to and fro of people’s feelings.”

“Also, when you watch a play in a language you don’t understand, you start to see the movements of emotion, and it can actually be even more interesting.”

For Aoki, Okamoto’s ideas resonated strongly with his own experience.

“When people talk with words, they’re also conversing with their energy,” he said, “and when I watched plays overseas I understood how easy it can be to see this.”

So even if you don’t understand Japanese very well, why not feast your senses on this top-notch production — and enjoy the language barrier as Aoki and Okamoto have.

“The River” runs Feb. 19-26 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre (Theatre East) in Ikebukuro. For details, call , 03-6809-7125 or visit www.play-the-river.com. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.

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