On waiting and forgetting – “Godot has come”

When it comes to the theatre of the absurd in Japan the first name you will encounter is Betsuyaku Minoru’s, who has been active as a playwright since the 1960s and has been a decisive authority in establishing the genre. His plays depict individuals who have lost the ability to communicate with each other and are completely alone in facing their anxiety before sickness and death. Some of the plays Betsuyaku Minoru is famous for are Byōki “Sick”, “Elephant” and Matchi uri no shōjo “The Little Match Girl”.

A fairly recent work, Yattekita Godot (“Godot has come”) had its premiere in 2007. The performance I saw was a production of Theatre Office Natori (known in Japan especially for its innovative production of Ibsen’s plays, such as Double Nora, “A Doll’s House in Noh style”), who gathered actors belonging to different theatre companies in Tokyo under the direction of K. Kiyama. It was performed this year from May 23rd through May 27th at Haiyūza Theatre.

“Godot has come” relies on Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” for the setting and the characters (we still have Estragon and Vladimir waiting for Godot, with Pozzo and his slave, Lucky, showing up), however with some additions that carry the plot in a completely different direction. The most important one is of course Godot himself, who appears very early in the development of the plot.

As if taking a stance towards the numerous allusions to Christian symbols in Beckett’s play, the tree in “Waiting for Godot” is replaced by a telephone pole in Betsuyaku’s play. Actually, the pole as single object on the stage has become a distinctive mark of Betsuyaku Minoru’s works, used as a reminder of the Beckettian space.

While Estragon and Vladimir are as ever waiting for Godot, they are joined by other characters: a woman who waits for the bus in the station and another woman pushing a baby cart. Two other women set up a “reception” stand (a common motive of Betsuyaku Minoru’s plays), although it is not clear what the reception is for. Before long, Godot arrives. He looks like a traveler, wearing a trench coat and carrying a suitcase and an umbrella. He lets everybody know that he is Godot and that he has arrived. But by the time Estragon and Vladimir hear the news, they already have their hands full with other things to do. It turns out that the lady waiting for the bus may be Estragon’s mother and that the child carried by the other woman may be Vladimir’s son. Pozzo and Lucky also make their appearance – in the same way as in Beckett’s play, with Lucky being brutalized by his master. By the end of the play, Pozzo is blind and impaired, so he depends on Lucky to carry him around. However, nothing is more heart-wrenching than Godot’s loneliness, as nobody is willing to take in that he is finally there. They all know that it is him, the one whom they have been waiting for, but they are too busy with their real lives to actually realize his presence, as if they had forgotten what they were waiting for.

Watching “Godot has come” I understood what the playwright meant when he stated (in this interview) that his aim is to create a theatre of relationships, where the relationships between humans play a heavier role than the characters themselves. In fact, my own interpretation of the play was marked by the realization that indeed you cannot have people living by themselves, completely detached from their surroundings, and without depending on other people for their existence. When you realize that you have a family to care for, you really cannot afford to be waiting for someone who will never come.

However, if this were indeed the point of the play, it would turn out to be a story of absolute common sense. There would be nothing to qualify it as absurd. So what is the absurd element that Betsuyaku Minoru is pointing at?

While Beckett’s statement is that it is absurd to wait for someone who will never come, the author of “Godot has come” seems to suggest that it is also absurd to forget what you were waiting for. The Japanese playwright brings on a shift of perspective – from the absurdity of waiting to the absurdity of forgetting, and at the same time from an existentialist point of view to a human one. In this way, Betsuyaku Minoru establishes his own concept of the absurd, relating it to a very different background in terms of space, time and mentality.

As far as the performance itself is concerned, it has warmth and lightness, a far cry from the detached, almost abstract atmosphere of Beckett’s play, by which if you laugh, you realize you’re laughing at the misery of human condition.

I only hope that larger audiences will have the opportunity to see this play and enjoy the richness of its meanings, hidden in every detail of the staging. Theatre Office Natori’s production of Betsuyaku Minoru’s “Godot has come” will be touring Europe in December this year, with performances in Oslo, Paris and Berlin.

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Chelfitsch “Current Location” – A Mirror To Reality (part 2)

Given the predilection of Chelfitsch for taking on the most actual and most relevant issues of the present, it was only natural that their newest work would mirror the state of the Japanese society after the disaster triggered by the earthquake on March 11th 2011.

From an article entitled “Menacing reality through fiction” (Theater der Zeit, 10/2011) we already got a glimpse of the direction which Okada Toshiki’s work would take after the events that marked last year. He was acknowledging theatre as fiction and raising the question about what can fiction do in order to give a stimulus of some kind to reality. The disaster which afflicted Japan last year had been a turning point for him as a playwright, such as it had been for the Japanese society as a whole.

Genzaichi (“Current Location”) was performed from April 20th through April 30th at Kanagawa Arts Theater (KAAT). Okada Toshiki insists that the work should be seen as fiction, and goes as far as pointing out the science fiction elements of the play, in an attempt to detach the story from the events last year.

The characters of “Current Location” are tormented by the rumors that a disaster is set to happen to their village. While some believe the rumors and want to leave at once, others don’t see any reason to take action, though they are also obviously disturbed by the rumors. While the seemingly unconcerned ones attempt to live their lives like they used to, one of the characters is murdered. No one knows her whereabouts until the lake near the village dries and reveals the body. On the same occasion, the villagers dig up a ship found at the bottom of the lake, which they see as a means to leave the crumbling village forever. Some of them do leave – thinking with regret that the world they left behind would have already disappeared. But some of them remain, only to witness a long-lasting rain that menaced to flood everything. It turns out that the rain fills the lake back, and the village flourishes once again.

The option for an all female cast seems to have been motivated by the need to express the anxiety before change and the weight given to rumors that could never be certified. While each of the characters has her own way of dealing with the critical situation, the overall view is of an ambiguous state of affairs, impossible to grasp in its entirety. There is no final, clear-cut answer, in spite of the urgency to find one. In order to suggest the viewers that the story unfolding on the stage concerns them directly, the characters even stage a play within the play. In this way, some of them become spectators themselves, breaking that imaginary division between stage and audience known as the fourth wall, and letting the viewers realize that they are involved in this story.

Nevertheless, the most disturbing thing about “Current Location” is that the choreography which was the trademark of Chelfitsch has been left off. With the “noisy” physical movement being replaced by restrained gestures, the result must be a shocking sight for the viewers accustomed to their performances, as the silence of the gestures proves to be far more unsettling than the silence of words. More than anything else, this almost unnatural absence of movement is the mark of a dramatic change undergone by Chelfitsch in light of recent events.

This may be redundant, but I must confess that my own impression of the performance was marked by the earthquake that occurred right in the middle of it. Is this part of the script? I wondered half in disbelief. But for two long minutes, the boundary between fiction and reality was unexpectedly abolished, with the actors on the stage and the people in the audience sharing a feeling of dread. (I doubt I could ever fully describe how an earthquake feels when you find yourself in a row near the stage – hearing the lighting instruments swaying above your head, but being unable to see them in the dark; and thanking God that the rest of the viewers are Japanese, which means that they won’t be rushing unreasonably for the exit, in a chaos more dangerous than the earthquake itself). It was as if the bodies of all present were about to dissolve in fear, while the tension of the moment felt more material than the people and the objects around.

Long after the performance, there was a phrase that still followed me: “Those who keep their eyes closed, end up dead”. This is probably the one and only direct statement in the whole script and it is the only point where the author leaves his unintrusive stance aside. For a single moment, the image in the mirror becomes menacing and appeals to the consciousness of the audience directly.

The plot of “Current Location” and its resemblance to the current state of affairs may be overwhelming to anyone living in Japan at the moment, but Okada insists that his intention was to conceive a fictional work, powerful enough as to shake reality. After all, the act of checking our current location is in itself a sign that we are on our way toward a new horizon, and hope is not lost as long as we keep going forward.

I have no doubt that audiences from any time and any place in the world will be able to link this strangely painful story to their own anxieties and to see their own image reflected in the mirror, urging them to take a step toward the self they desire to be.

Chelfitsch “Current Location” – A Mirror To Reality (part 1)

One of the first performances I saw in Japan was Genzaichi ”Current Location”, written and directed by Okada Toshiki, founder of the theatrical unit Chelfitsch.

Chelfitsch has been active since 1997 and is known for its original performance style, which makes use of colloquial language and “noisy” physical movement. Separating the discourse and the gestures on purpose results in a bizarre choreography that distracts the attention of the audience from what the characters are saying and directs it to the image that lies beyond the words and the gestures. You can get a glimpse of their style by watching the presentation video of “Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and the Farewell Speech”:

I remember that, when seeing a video of “Air conditioner” for the first time, I thought: But of course! Why should a character’s words and their gestures tell the same story? When realizing that what the characters are talking about is not what the play is about, I found myself experiencing the same kind of surprise as when I saw Magritte’s “This is not a pipe! for the first time. The method employed by Chelfitsch hints at the potentiality of theatre to question the very basic things that are usually taken for granted.

The language that Okada Toshiki uses in his plays faithfully mimics the everyday speech of contemporary Japanese youth and one of its interesting traits is that the characters are often talking about things without naming them. This kind of verbal expression is nonetheless a characteristic of Japanese language, in which the subject of a sentence can be easily elided, with the communicative act still making sense.

After “Hot Pepper, Air conditioner and The Farewell Speech”, plays like ”Five Days in March” and “The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise” have gained high acclaim even outside Japan for exploring social and individual issues through theatre, in a bold and unconventional attempt to find new meanings for theatrical expression. In Okada Toshiki’s own words (from the pamphlet of Genzaichi), he conceives theatre as a “mirror”. According to him, what theatre can do is to raise a mirror to society and to show an image of reality, in the hope that a change for the better would occur if there’s a need for it.

Before turning to their latest work, Genzaichi, here’s a short video of “Five Days in March”, in order to get you acquainted with the performing style of Chelfitsch:

The Actor, the Mirror and the Audience

One of the last things the actor sees before entering the stage is his own reflection in the mirror, while checking if his appearance matches the concept of his role.

It is not by chance that the room behind the curtain in Noh theatre is called kagami no ma (the room of the mirror), for it is the place where the actor enters his role, while putting on his mask in front of a large mirror.  There must be a process of synchronization involved, meant to bring in unison that what you are (an actor) with what you temporarily should become (the role).

At the end of the performance, the last thing the actor sees as he is about to retire from the stage is the audience – applauding the show most often than not. What a relief it must be to see smiling faces, with looks expressing enthusiasm in response to a good act. But what if the spectators are frowning? To all the ones who put their efforts into creating a performance, the audience is itself a mirror, reflecting the degree in which their work succeeded in moving the hearts of the viewers.

In all performing arts the mirror, either in its material form, or simply as a metaphor, works as a powerful and magical device, shared by all the ones involved, whether they are actors or members of the audience, or that somewhat suspicious instance called “the critic”. There are even artists who conceive their work as a mirror, trying to make the best possible use of the image reflected in it.

Whether you are already fascinated, as I am, by the world of the theatre or not yet, I invite you to read what the Mirror has to tell – as it witnesses the short-lived miracles created by talented people, all of whom seem to share the belief that dreams and illusions have the power to awaken and to enlighten.