As an Honorary Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Caird may be one of the leading pillars of the English theater establishment, but in a recent interview with The Japan Times, this acclaimed director of plays, musicals and opera declared, “In a sense, some part of me is becoming a little bit Japanese.”

Caird, 66, gained a worldwide reputation as co-director with Trevor Nunn of Cameron Mackintosh’s 1985 megahit musical “Les Misérables,” based on Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel of the same name about human turmoils in the leadup to a rebellion in Paris 30 years before.

But along with a relentless work schedule, Caird has another life as the father of three teenage children with his Japanese actress wife since 1998, Maoko Imai — children who are “entirely bilingual and bicultural ,” he said proudly.

This time, Caird is in Japan to direct “Twelfth Night,” his second Shakespeare production with an entirely Japanese cast, with his wife as his assistant director and translator.

“We love working together, and as I have a strong commitment to Japan, I’m always thinking of projects to do here,” he said during our meeting last week.

In the past, those projects have included the foreign musicals “Beggar’s Opera,” “Jane Eyre” and “Daddy Long Legs” — which all, unusually for Japan, went on to sell-out repeat runs.

Also, when Caird made his first foray into Shakespeare with an all-Japanese cast in May 1997 — with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the New National Theatre in Tokyo — his magical and musical staging was such a sensation that it was given a rare early re-run there two years later.

As for the work in hand, Caird explained, “The comedy ‘Twelfth Night’ is all based on misunderstandings and confusions about what people are feeling and who they really are. So we see how everybody loves the wrong person, and loves them for the wrong reason.

“Yet even though people go through terrible pains, humiliations and all kinds of stress, at the end the overall feeling is of happiness.

“But I’m sorry, this isn’t really the end, because life goes on and it’s never simple — so as the play’s closing song says: “For the rain it raineth every day.”

Written around 1601, “Twelfth Night” tells a tale of love and gender mix-ups following a shipwreck in Illyria on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea (around present-day Albania).

Among those mix-ups is one involving twins Viola and Sebastian (both acted by Kei Otozuki), who both survive but are separated. Afterward, Viola disguises herself as a boy and takes the name Cesario, getting work in the household of Duke Orsino (Ryousei Konishi), who is passionately in love with Countess Olivia (Tomoko Nakajima).

However, Olivia is in mourning for her parents and has refused Orsino’s proposal — but then she falls for Cesario (who is actually Viola), while Viola herself falls in love with Duke Orsino — who believes she is his page, Cesario.

While this is far from being the play’s only poignant love triangle, all manner of other feelings both intense and banal also take the stage, most often getting twisted around and confused as everything becomes more and more complicated. And of course, Sebastian also figure’s in his twin sister’s drama.

“What I want Japanese audiences to understand about this play is that it’s very funny, but it’s also a rich, strange and interesting philosophical play,” Caird observed.

“There are really fascinating thoughts in it about the way life is, the way we are and the way we behave with other people — also what love means, and the relation between love and death and time.

“It also involves,” this Shakespeare scholar continued, “what men think about women, what women think about men — and what men think about men.

“It’s very complex what’s happening underneath the play. What people think about their age, about passing their time, about the possibility of death. There are very dark elements of ambition and aspiration, too.”

This is Caird’s third stab at “Twelfth Night” since his Olivier Award-winning 1983-85 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company and a version in Swedish he directed in 2002 and ’03 at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Copenhagen.

Here, though, for the first time the twins Viola and Sebastian will be played by the same person — the actress Kei Otozuki, a former star of the famed all-female Takarazuka Revue, who played male roles there throughout her career prior to retiring in 2012.

Explaining the reason for his groundbreaking casting in this production, Caird said, “I’ve never had an actress to do it with, but I got the idea to do it in Japan because of Takarazuka’s tradition (of women acting men’s roles). I thought it could work if it was done by somebody really used to playing like that. And I think Kei is amazing — she is really great.”

As well, the director said how happy he is to be working again with so many actors he’s directed before, explaining, “As they already know me, they feel more freedom to take initiatives and invent things by themselves.

“Commonly in Japan, actors do what directors tell them, but I think actors have to be collaborators — not robots. They have to be an inventor for themselves. Directors can’t think of everything.”

Warming to his theme on the nature of acting, the master dramatist went on, saying, “There isn’t any character on a stage who’s independent from an actor. When you rehearse the play, the actor has to become the character — and the character also has to become the actor. They have to walk toward each other. So, Viola has to become Kei, as much as Kei has to become Viola. Tomoko’s Olivia is not like anybody else’s Olivia, because Tomoko is such a particularly special person.”

Then, speaking from his long experience being involved with theater in Japan, Caird pointed out two things he believes are particular impediments to the play-making process here.

First, he said directors and actors stay till far too late in the rehearsal room at night, just repeating and repeating the same things and not having enough time off to think about and study the play and bring new ideas to the team. Also, he hates the way many Japanese actors speak too fast and do lots of shouting on stage.

“If they have strong feelings, they shout each other,” he said with a grimace. “It’s sort of a fake version of acting, because real acting is actually the opposite; if you are shouting, you can’t feel, certainly you can’t think. I want to say, ‘Shut up, just talk and slow down and listen.’ If you don’t listen to the meaning of what the other actor said, how can you present a real conversation? If you go too fast and too loud, audiences also can’t think as well.

“The whole point of theater is that the actors and audiences are thinking at the same time. The acting has to go at a pace the audience can understand while adding their own thoughts and feelings.

“Also, the performance has to be different every night, and if the actors are really listening and understanding, then the performance changes all the time.”

Caird noted too, how it would be great to see more men in theaters in Japan, as there are in Europe, because most audiences here are largely female and “theater is a place where men and women can go together to understand more about the world.

“Theater should be for everybody, and anyone can share its blessing,” he said. “However, lots of theaters are escaping from reality, and I have no interest in that sort of theater at all.

“Shakespeare or plays like Philip Ridley’s ‘Mercury Fur’ that you wrote about the other week, or other great plays, they help you to understand about the world, how to live your life, how to help other people live their lives — and how to think about being human.

“I think more thinking people in Japan need to see the theater as a living culture and a worthy place for them to work. You need people who feel it would be great to write plays, for instance.

“Theater is a great place for a political debate and for emotional debate, talking about the stage as a nation. It’s wonderful to see plays about the 2011 tsunami, nuclear power or political corruption, and these kinds of things are common subjects for people to write about for the stage in Europe, where theater is used as a way of talking about all aspects of life.”

Life however, involves death, and sadly Johan Engels, the South African designer who worked on Caird’s upcoming “Twelfth Night” will not be at the Nissay Theatre in Tokyo to see the marvelously natural garden-style set he created, having died of an apparent heart attack just after completing the project.

So Caird urges people who see this great human comedy to have a rich and interesting life and enjoy it as Engels did.

Finally, he added, “Theater is a necessary part of a civilized country. What is life without theater or music? It’s nothing. It’s just politics, war and business. But there is a limit to how interested we can be in those things in the end.”

“Twelfth Night” runs March 8-30 at the Nissay Theatre in Yurakucho, Tokyo, before touring April 7-12 to Oita City and Osaka. For details, call 03-3201-7777 or visit www.tohostage.com/12ya.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.