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”, Zō “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.