There’s about to be a hanging at Tokyo’s Hibiya High School — and the auditorium is packed with students who’ve come to see it.
The call to watch a hanging is the powerful opening scene of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” — as staged by The International Theatre Company London and currently touring schools across Japan.
ITCL uses a cast of just five to dramatize the tale of Oliver Twist, an unfortunate waif who grows up in a Victorian workhouse and escapes it only to fall in with a band of thieves. Unlike Dickens’ novel, the troupe tells the story through the eyes of Fagin, who, in the play’s finale, is hanged for being the leader of this gang of petty robbers.
It’s not just the play’s opening that is dramatically different from the original book. There’s something unusual about Oliver, too — he’s played by a girl.
“I’ve played a lot of children, because I’m short and I look young,” said 29-year-old Tessa Slack, who plays Dickens’ orphan-hero. “I find it easier to act boyish — I take big steps on stage.”
Women play boys, men play women and all the actors play multiple roles. They slip in and out of character with the same ease that they shrug off a jacket or doff a cap to signal a new role. They use minimal props — a bench, a stool, a makeshift curtain — and rely more on expressive movements to tell the story of how Oliver becomes one of Fagin’s pickpockets.
The Hibiya students roared with laughter during the scene in which Oliver escapes from the workhouse. A green sheet was strung across the stage representing — a voice announces — “the English countryside.” A leafy branch sprang up behind the sheet to suggest a tree, and while the frightened Oliver jogged in place, the branch traveled back and forth behind the sheet to indicate his progress.
Even though the actors enliven the play for their young audience, its central theme — the nature of guilt and innocence — isn’t simplified. By making Fagin the focus of the play, director Paul Stebbings makes us think about who’s to blame for Oliver’s troubles. Does Fagin deserve to be hanged, or is he, like Oliver and all the other characters, a victim of society?
Taketei Ko, 16, watched the play and still found herself blaming Fagin. “He’s a thief,” she said. “I wouldn’t have let him hang, though. Maybe they could just put him in jail.”
Stebbings’ production gives students like Ko a chance to appreciate theater that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
Credit also goes to Tokyo-based Oneworld Inc., a language-services company, for giving students like Nakamura the rare opportunity to experience English-language theater on a regular basis. The company has been bringing ITCL to Japan twice a year since 1994.
“Students in Japan are so busy cramming that they have few opportunities to be exposed to the liberal arts,” said Oneworld’s Michiyo Watanabe. “We do this on a nonprofit basis, because you can be moved when you’re young, theater can transport you.”
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