Of all U.S. playwright Tennessee Williams’s many major works — including “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie” — “Orpheus Descending,” which opens in Tokyo next week with a star-studded Japanese cast and multi-award-winning English director Phillip Breen at the helm, is among those most rarely staged anywhere.
Premiered in 1957, the play is a radical retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, a minstrel who was taught to play the lyre by the god Apollo — but whose blissful life with a nymph named Eurydice is cut short when she’s bitten by a deadly snake while fleeing from a son of Apollo intent on rape.
However, Orpheus finds a cave leading to the Underworld, where his singing and playing charms the King of the Dead so much that he lets him take Eurydice back to the Land of the Living — as long as he doesn’t look at her face before they get there. When he does just that, though, Eurydice is lost to him forever — and after he vows his eternal love for her, jealous wild women of Thrace rip Orpheus to bits.
Set in a sadistically patriarchal family in a repressive Deep South town — likely similar to the Columbus, Mississippi, where Williams (1911-83) spent his early life— “Orpheus Descending” portrays a middle-aged heroine named Lady Torrance (played by superstar actress Shinobu Otake) who runs a dry-goods store.
In a reworking of a Greek chorus, two old wives inform the audience through their gossip about Torrance’s tragic past and loveless marriage with her dying husband Jabe. Consequently, even before the heroine discovers the bitter truth, the audience finds out that Jabe led the mob that years before burned her father’s orchard, killing him in the blaze. After that, Jabe was able to “buy” attractive young Lady, who had been above his station before she lost everything.
Into this living hell, shot through with violent racism and sexual frustration, descends handsome and decadent Val Xavier (Haruma Miura) clad in a snakeskin jacket and carrying his guitar.
This latter-day Orpheus captivates all the female characters, including exhibitionist thirtysomething Carol (Asami Mizukawa), middle-aged religious painter Vee (Kazuyo Mita) and Lady Torrance — who hires Val as a shop clerk and is drawn to his sexual energy and free spirit. But then their illicit relationship, which threatens the patriarchal order, ends in violence, flames and killings.
In a recent conversation with Breen and Otake in Tokyo, the Liverpool-born director told me how, when he was 15, his break in theater came when the fellow Liverpudlian Willy Russell — famed for his hit plays “Blood Brothers” and “Shirley Valentine” — gave a fledgling troupe he’d started the rights to stage his play “Our Day Out,” which (Liverpool-born) Paul McCartney saw and helped promote.
Back then, Breen said, “Theatre was an opportunity to hang out with interesting people and learn from their ideas, and in a way I’m doing nothing different now — getting to hang out with great actors like Shinobu.”
Since graduating from Cambridge University, Breen, 36, has most recently directed an acclaimed version of Thomas Dekker’s 1599 citizen comedy “The Shoemaker’s Holiday” for the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, his work, performed worldwide, includes new plays, classics, musicals, jazz cabaret, comedy — and “RSC Alternative Christmas Lecture” with Vivienne Westwood.
Though “Orpheus Descending” is Breen’s debut in Japan, he said he quickly felt at home in rehearsals.
“When I went to the read-through and saw the translator, Atsuro Hirota, and his character and his mannerisms and energy, he’s just like a writer — and all the actors were looking to me in the way I’m used to actors looking to me, so that was very familiar and gave me a sense of calm.”
Although Breen speaks no Japanese, he said, “I’ve had no problem tapping into the play’s emotions brought to life by the cast.”
Asked to elaborate on those emotions, he said the play hinges on a universal dilemma: the lure of adventure versus a life of domesticity.
“It’s the idea of a self that one projects in the world, and an inner life — and the tension between the two; the dark one versus the light of the other. That’s at the heart of this play.”
Working with Breen has also been an adventure for Otake, whose wealth of experience ranges from Greek tragedy and Shakespeare to modern and contemporary drama. Saying she was enjoying Breen’s style of directing — particularly his detailed depictions of society in the Deep South and thinking about parallels to contemporary Japan — she pointed out that she’s found common ground between Lady Torrance and Blanche DuBois, the central character in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” who she played to great acclaim in Yukio Ninagawa’s 2002 production.
As she put it, “both Lady and Blanche are suffering from burning loneliness and therefore they cling to their intense desire to love and to be loved.
“I just hope I can capture the play’s emotion and passion and deliver it to audiences in Tokyo and Osaka.”
“Jigoku no Orpheus” (“Orpheus Descending”) runs May 7-31 at Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya, Tokyo, then plays June 6-14 at Morinomiya Piloti Hall in Osaka. For details, call 03-3477-9999 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp/cocoon/lineup/15_orpheus.