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Though it’s 40 years since Italian playwright Dacia Maraini wrote “Mary Stuart,” this story of two queens — Elizabeth I of England and Ireland and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots — remains as relevant now as ever in its portrayal of two women burning with anger about their exploitation by men despite themselves contrasting so much in their outlooks on life and love.

In the upcoming Japanese production by rising-star English director Max Webster, the work’s five roles are filled by just two actresses, with Miki Nakatani playing Mary (1542-87), Elizabeth’s love rival and Elizabeth’s nanny, while Misuzu Kanno portrays the so-called Virgin Queen (1533-1603) and one of Mary’s servants.

Speaking to The Japan Times recently about this work that’s generally described as being “feministic,” Webster, 32, said: “I think its theme of gender is very important in this modern world, where there are great changes in how men and women relate to each other and how men are behaving and ways in which it is possible to be woman. Yet women still only fill 5 or 6 per cent of top executive jobs in many European countries, so though they may have legal equality there’s a long way to go to achieve practical equality and equal rights for both sexes.”

Speaking personally, Nakatani added, “For women, it is hard to work in this society, especially in a top job, and as an actress I have sacrificed many things for my career.”

Then commenting on the play, she said, “Mary wants to both work and have happiness as a woman, but fails, whereas Elizabeth conducts herself entirely responsibly and so I tend to sympathize with her as a working woman — though I love the honesty of Mary, who follows her feelings in her life.

In contrast, Kanno declared herself “opposite to Elizabeth” — whose role she plays — explaining, “I can’t control myself strictly like her and I’m probably more of a dreamer like Mary. Outside the rehearsal room, though, I know many women’s lives are fraught with distress about jobs and babies and such, and that many wonder what they’re worth if they’re not a wife or mother. Also, I’m still often shocked that the gaps between women and men haven’t been bridged many, many years ago. But I hope we can all go ahead smoothly to a new, richly equitable peaceful coexistence in society.”

However, Webster was at pains to point out that though this low-tech production — which has only a symbolically big mirror on the stage along with an execution block, a chair and table — focuses firmly on the two queens, who wear contemporary clothes, it is not only for women. Indeed, it seemed to this writer that all the characters are like different aspects of any one person.

“Though it is set in the past, the dilemmas faced by Elizabeth, who had a successful career but no family, and Mary, who had a romantic life and a family but failed in her career, are ever-present today and everyone has to decide their life’s priorities,” he said. “For example, I’ve devoted a lot of time to my theater career, but at some point I’d like to change the balance of my life to do less work and have a family. Is it possible to have successful career and family? It is universal problem.”

Finally this young director observed more generally how he’s come to the conviction that theater is especially valuable for the reason it is analog.

“Back in the ’90s,” he explained, “a lot of people thought theater had to respond to the digital world by incorporating video or complicated sounds. Now though, as life becomes more digital, occasions when people share the same space and themes together — like singing in church or enjoying big family meals — are becoming rare. But when you go to the theater, you can share the joy of others’ experience all together. It is completely different from cinema.”

“Of course film is a much bigger industry, but in theater we’re not out to make money except what it takes to make the play. so theater is a real community in which what people value is creating meaning together. and we can do it almost anywhere, including in big cities.”

“Mary Stuart” runs June 13-July 5 at the Parco Theater in Tokyo, then tours to Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Niigata and Fukuoka. For details, call 03-3477-5858 or visit www.parco-play.com.

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