It’s more than 400 years old, but ‘Richard III’ is just as relevant today

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Contributing Writer

Romanian theater director Silviu Purcarete has staged several plays in this country before, but now he’s working with an all-Japanese cast for the first time as he prepares to present his brand-new “Richard III” at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro from Oct. 18 to 30, ahead of a three-city tour.

In his more than 30-year directing career, this is the Bucharest native’s second stab at Shakespeare’s tale of murderous dynastic scheming for the throne of England, likely written in 1591. That, of course, was barely a century after the 1483-85 reign of the titular Plantagenet monarch he demonized, who fell in battle with foes from the Tudor dynasty that took over.

The 67-year-old director spoke with The Japan Times about his production at a downtown Tokyo studio following rehearsals with his 15 male actors, some of whom play female roles, and the veteran actress Misako Watanabe, who plays a scribe.

“When I was young, I wanted to be a painter and I went to art school, but that didn’t work out,” the dramatist — long renowned for his magnificent, sometimes surreal, visual expressions — explains. “Then in the 1970s in Romania, many talented theater directors appeared as social conditions eased off for a while before the (communist) regime imposed austerity in the ’80s. They inspired me and that’s why I’m here now.”

On the world stage, however, a major stepping stone on Purcarete’s road from Romania was the huge stir his extravagant staging of Goethe’s “Faust,” with its 100-plus cast, made at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2009. The event’s esteemed former director, Frank Dunlop, described it as “an original and powerful production and one of the festival’s greatest hits.”

By then Purcarete had already been to Tokyo twice with Romanian troupes — first to present Shakespeare’s gory “Titus Andronicus” in 1992, then the Bard’s epic of shipwreck and magic, “The Tempest,” in 1996.

After that it was 2013 before he returned, with the German dramatist Frank Wedekind’s disturbing 1902 work “Lulu,” about a society riven by lust and greed. Then two years later they were back with “Oedipus the King” by the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles, and 1726’s “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift.

As in Edinburgh, audiences here were in awe of the originality and power of these diverse works. In “Lulu,” for instance, whose central character is ruined by men and ultimately killed by Jack the Ripper, Purcarete created a sunken stage onto which the audience looked down as her autopsy exposed not just wounds but men’s and women’s scarred nature too.

This time, he’s already been quoted as saying his aim is to set out the situation and have his Japanese cast improvise the scenes from “Richard III” to explore and gradually develop the piece.

So how did he imagine it might turn out?

“Well, once a play is translated it won’t be the same as the original, but even so I never introduce any changes to the text,” he says.

“I believe there is a reality in a play’s words written by its author, though once I’ve made a three-dimensional work that will show other realities, including my own — although my ideas were always existing in the text.

“Even so,” he notes, “today’s world probably reflects ‘Richard III’ very much, so the audience will feel a vivid actuality.”

When I follow that with a comment about current power rivalries in Japan, Purcarete blithely observes: “Such political farces occur in many places, such as in Uganda or Venezuela. But that easily happens at any time, anywhere.”

In conclusion, the master shares his happiness at working with Japanese actors and staff, saying, “They are so kind and patient even though I’m still groping for the final form in my mind — but we will never reach that goal till the curtain rises!

“That’s because we’re not making products in a factory, so we always take risks and nobody can guarantee the result.”

So why not take a risk, too — and possibly meet a Richard III who isn’t straight from “Richard III”? After all, evil can take many guises.

“Richard III” runs from Oct. 18 to 30 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Toshima Ward. It then tours to Morinomiya Piloti Hall in Osaka (Nov. 3-5), Morioka Civic Cultural Hall in Iwate Prefecture (Nov. 8) and NTK Hall in Nagoya (Nov. 15). For more information, call TMET at 0570-010-296 or visit www.richard3-stage.com.