When the Performing Body Becomes a Voice – “Prolog?”

Elfriede Jelinek’s drama texts are a challenge to any theatre director because they are completely open to all interpretations. The writer provides no “characters” or “plot”, let alone stage directions, so there is nothing there for the director to determine the way in which they should be staged. Surely, Jelinek’s series of plays prompted by the nuclear accident at Fukushima – “Fukushima –Epilog” and “Kein Licht.” – were not written with the Japanese stage in mind. Those texts are there for anyone to direct, and they have actually already been staged – in Cologne (2011), Salzburg (2012) and recently in Vienna and Graz. But since the Japanese were affected by the disaster directly, there is indeed a kind of expectation that Japanese directors would be the ones to make the most out of these plays.

It must be said from the start that Jelinek‘s plays are not meant to be enjoyable. They have a quality of addressing the listener directly: provoking the audience with outrage, anger and irony. In “Prolog?” the author seems to take on the role of a “shaman”, a medium-like presence, bringing to light the voices which otherwise would be left unheard. However, these voices are not, so to speak, “characters”. For instance, in Jelinek’s dialogue between “me” and “you”, between the accuser and the accused, between victim and perpetrator, the boundary is very thin, almost indiscernible. With no characters and no narrative, the text is completely open. The director is free to choose the number of characters he brings on stage, the theatrical genre or method he employs (“Kein Licht.” was a “Sprechoper” on the Austrian stage, for example), and he can even choose which part of the play he would like to focus on in order to emphasize certain aspects of the content. That is why Akio Miyazawa’s attempt to stage “Prolog?” with the means of Noh theatre, unarguably the most “formal” performing art extant in Japan, has been a most inspired one.

First and foremost, the stage borrows the structure of a Noh stage, with its typical hashigakari – a prolongation that connects the stage with the left side of the backstage. In mugen nō (“dream Noh”), which is probably the most popular category of Noh plays, the main character is usually a ghost appearing in a traveler’s dream. Here the hashigakari is seen as the path that connects “this world” with the “other world”, the place where the ghost is coming from. In other words, right from the beginning of the performance, just by seeing the structure of the stage, we already receive a hint about the key in which Miyazawa interpreted the dramatic text: the characters will most probably be apparitions, souls of the dead wandering around unappeased. In fact, the director went a step further by covering the stage in dirt, making it look like a burial ground.

In this tension-laden space the bodies of the five actresses enter slowly, in a slow tempo reminding us again of Noh. As they take over their roles, they go in and out of the slow tempo. All the actresses get their turn to speak, but just like in Noh theatre, the performers are responsible for roles, they do not represent characters. Their roles and their lines are handed over from one to the other, suggesting the image of a sea of voices–as one voice comes into the forefront, the others fade out. As to what they say, their lines are fragments of statements, words of resentment, disrupted dialogues and shouts – directed toward the audience rather than to each other.

F/T13 Jelinek series: Prolog?, directed by Akio Miyazawa (Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Nov 30th - Dec 8th)

F/T13 Jelinek series: Prolog?, directed by Akio Miyazawa (Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Nov 30th – Dec 8th)

Among them all there is a particular phrase that is repeated over and over again: “The staging will fail!” In German, there is the same word for “staging” and “representation” – “Darstellung” and the Japanese translation of the work (by Tatsuki Hayashi) uses both words, well aware that the dual nuance is important for the meaning of the play. Director Miyazawa focuses on “staging”, a self-mocking allusion to the performance for which he is responsible. However, these words are meant to be a menacing prediction which definitely cannot mean only the staging of the play itself. If we think about the tension that is the theme of this play, the tension between representation of reality and reality itself, then it becomes clear that Jelinek’s prophecy has a long range. Although written as the last in her series of texts triggered by the nuclear disaster as an extension of “Kein Licht.”, this work is a “prologue” because it is a prophecy. It predicts that the scenario that the authorities in power are putting up will fail, because no one will believe a representation of reality that is fake.

By using the space and the basic ideas regarding movement and tempo from Noh theatre, Miyazawa manages to give form to a dramatic text that is open-ended, making it possible for it to be staged and its message conveyed. It is only with a directorial approach that this work becomes complete and performable. However, the director seems to be fully aware that it would be a mistake to force the formality of Noh theatre into Jelinek’s text. That is why the form is powerfully disrupted at a certain moment, when the actresses dance frenetically to very loud and high-paced hard rock – the ultimate expression of rage and counter-reaction to a state of affairs that is imposed on the individual.

When faced with a dramatic text, there are several options for the theatre director. One can respect the original meaning and intent of the play, but interpret it as originally as possible, conferring one’s own “colors” on it through the staging. The second option is to completely dismantle it and take an opposing stance towards the playwright, turning the meaning of the text upside down. Or, the third option is that the director can do everything in his powers to render the message of the play as accurately as possible, paying respect to the auctorial voice.

After a careful and in-depth reading of “Prolog?”, Miyazawa has managed to ensure that Jelinek’s voice takes the foreground and reaches the audience. The author speaking on behalf of the dead possessed only words at first, but the bodies of the five actresses and the “form” borrowed from Noh theatre now make the work complete, functioning as means for that voice from beyond to come out and reach us, the audience. It is a powerful, provocative voice, calling out for us to keep questioning the validity of the images and representations that are imposed on us.

(* This article has first appeared on the “Blog Camp in F/T” platform, a Festival/Tokyo 2013 program for young critics lead by performing arts journalist Iwaki Kyoko, and was reblogged with permission.)

The nearest you can get to Fukushima without leaving Tokyo

“Kein Licht II”, performed in November 2012 during Festival/Tokyo, was adapted from one of the two texts written by Elfriede Jelinek in response to the nuclear disaster that happened in Fukushima. Director Takayama Akira, founder of the theatrical unit Port B, has taken on the task of staging this play.

The performance was conceived as a “tour” through places in Fukushima, whose landscape has been reconstructed in various locations in the Shinbashi area of Tokyo. Leaving the comfortable audience seats behind, the “spectators” of this work embark on the tour individually and follow exact indications, in order to move from one location to another. Amidst the setting created in each location, the participants listen to fragments of Jelinek’s play through a portable radio that they each carries.

Shinbashi transfigured during the Port B performance of "Kein Licht II"

Shinbashi transfigured during the Port B performance of “Kein Licht II”

The fact that the landscape recreated here is faithful to the original one in Fukushima is proven by the images on the postcards that contain the route indications. The particular characteristics of photography as an artistic medium best highlights the harsh reality of the contaminated area, namely that time has stopped there and that it has become a deserted place. Where there were people just moments ago, there is no one anymore now. Each setting conveys the desolation brought on by the unexpected catastrophe. At the same time, every location suggests the presence of an invisible element that keeps people away from their homes and workplaces, from schools and playgrounds. In this context, the use of the radio is also a subtle allusion to radiation. However, the meaning of the radio is taken one step further in this performance, for it also suggests that there are things that remain unseen and unheard, unless you adjust yourself to the right frequency.

The act of transposing Fukushima onto Tokyo, 226 km away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant, is in itself provocative, taking a critical stance towards any discourse about Fukushima held while maintaining a distance from the place. It is that very distance that Takayama Akira’s concept argues with.

The dramatic text itself is brought to life through the voices of high school students from Fukushima. Conceived as a long discourse of mourning, it pleads the fact that the price we have to pay for using light is just too big. There is anger, repentance and forlornness behind every line, but what surprises the listener most is the sound of the phrases. As if the catastrophe had affected not only people and environment, but also the language itself, the words of “Kein Licht II” have a disconcerting sharpness to them.

By articulating aspects that the Japanese phrase would rather level out or hide under a veil of ambiguity out of a well-meant consideration for the listener, the translation has chosen to keep the structure of the original German text and, together with it, the particular atmosphere of a language that is by its nature more appropriate for expressing critical stances. Transposing the discourse imagined by Jelinek into natural-sounding Japanese would have meant making the discourse milder, with all the sharp points erased out. But at least when denouncing the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, an incisive – even though outlandish – discourse seems to be the right choice.

Port B "Kein Licht II"

Port B “Kein Licht II”

With all the linguistic and structural particularities of the text, the task of weaving it into the tour performance concept is all the more remarkable. The result is one that is highly experiential for the audience. First of all, the very existence of the spectator is a condition sine qua non for the development of the performance. By sharing information concerning the performance with the production staff, by moving from one location to another and by observing each setting in its own context,the members of the audience become participants in their own right in the creation of this work.

Secondly, the spectator witnesses the transfiguration of Shinbashi. There is actually a reason why this particular area in Tokyo was chosen for the staging of Fukushima; it is revealed within the very first location and it is one of the most thought-provoking aspects of the performance. Nonetheless, the sudden transformation of the once familiar setting is a thrilling experience. You are given the occasion to step into places in the neighborhood you would probably never enter otherwise. On your way from one location to another you might meet other participants, whom you recognize by the radios and the postcards they are carrying. You might exchange knowing smiles with them at the thought that you are sharing the same experience, unknown to the passers-by, who might only find your actions somewhat suspicious.

The Port B tour performances, such as “Kein Licht II”, are are highly conceptual works, rooted in our most urgent reality , designed to make audience rethink their everyday surroundings. In a crisis situation the place you think you know like the palm of your hand becomes a foreign, dangerous place. I can only wish that everybody would experience this as theatre, in the Port B version, and not in reality.

More on Festival/ Tokyo 2012 “Kein Licht II” in this excellent article by William Andrews on Tokyo Stages.

*Update: Since September 12th through October 5th Port B’s latest project “Evakuieren” takes place in the Rhein-Main region in Germany. (Images here and German language info available here) For those who are in the area, it is certainly worth experiencing.

(* This article has first appeared on the “Blog Camp in F/T” platform, a Festival/Tokyo 2012 program for young critics lead by performing arts journalist Iwaki Kyoko, and was reblogged with permission.)

 

 

A play within a play within a memory – “Record of a Journey to Antigone, and Its Performance”

The Festival/Tokyo 2012 performance of marebito theatre company had been awaited anxiously by everyone who was lucky enough to hear of this project and follow its traces on the internet. The first stage of the performance had been actually going on on a special website and on Twitter since August 2012. What we were able to witness from November 15th through 18th (2012) at the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory has been the second stage of performance, conceived as an occasion for the characters and their audience to reenact the story in their memory. The choice of venue, a former school in an area of Tokyo known for its aging population, is also apt – a site fully imbued with the past.

The main plot and concept centers around a theatre group planning and conducting a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone for a blind man in Fukushima. Three other parallel stories unfold at the same time, with one character connecting all these threads together.

As well as the “performance” that took place in the main space, the old school gymnasium, of the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory – featuring the Antigone actors-playing-actors seemingly “acting” their roles – the audience could also experience sound installations created by Araki Masamitsu on two floors of the adjacent building. One, “Transit Melody: A Man Who Went Fishing on the Coast of Fukushima”, was a collection of sounds from the area devastated by the earthquake last year, while “Transit Melody: A Jukebox Wrapped in Smoke” consisted in soundscapes from various locations in Fukushima, conceived as an exhibition of tapes that the audience could play freely. According to the artist’s statement during a talk session, perspective – the position that one chooses when observing an object, in this case, Fukushima – played an essential role in the conception of the works. The importance of choosing one’s perspective is also alluded to in the theatrical performance in the gymnasium. The idea that someone can see one landscape but fail to see other sides of reality underlies the entire concept of the project like a red thread.

Prior to the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory installation and performance, the profiles of the characters had been taking shape gradually in time, with every record they left themselves on blogs, Twitter and YouTube. All along, the audience had been exposed to their thoughts, photos, videos and interviews with people who used to live in Iitate-mura and Minami Sōma, districts that have been severely affected by radiation. Moreover, there had even been occasions to witness short episodes of the story taking place publicly in Tokyo and Fukushima: two characters meeting by chance in Shinjuku, the meetings of the theatre group in a café, the mysterious apparition of one of the characters handing her visit card randomly to people on the street, two lovers being stalked by a woman in Kōenji. In other words, we have been able to witness theatrical fiction permeating the everyday reality in Tokyo and Fukushima.

Marebito no kai, “Record of a Journey to Antigone, and Its Performance” (Festival/Tokyo 2012 performance)

Marebito no kai, “Record of a Journey to Antigone, and Its Performance” (Festival/Tokyo 2012 performance)

The traces left by the characters on the internet have been working like seeds planted in the audience’s imagination, providing the conditions for the story to take contour. This process has made possible for the performance to take place literally in the memory of the characters and the audience, who met for the first time in Nishi-Sugamo. While the characters were standing in an empty space, entrusting their bodies to the process of reminiscence, the spectators were free to move among them, recalling the bits and pieces of information related to the story that they had learned beforehand through the internet.

Faced with this unusual theatrical experience, the spectator tries at first to find his/her own place among the reminiscing bodies of the actors, and little by little one feels the joy of recognizing the characters: Ikiune Minoru, the self-claimed playwright, inspired by the charming apparition of Hibari Umemi to write his own version of Antigone and to envision her in the main role; Oki Momoko– the representative of the theatre company, responsible for planning and directing the performance of Antigone in Fukushima; Hibari Umemi, the actress who is to play Antigone – she identifies with the role on an unconscious level and there is something tragic about her every gesture that reveals her identity; the young woman standing close to her can be none other than Yoshimoto Mika, who is to play Ismene, Antigone’s sister; Rosso Jun (whose tweets, written with a sharp tongue, will surely be missed), in charge of the role of Haemon, and KurumeTōki, whose dignified stature calls to mind king Creon. Slightly apart from them one recognizes the two lovers, “Iroyama” and “Kinoshita”, being watched from the opposite corner, by “I” – the woman stalking them. The easiest to recognize is surely Kuwabara Sanae, whose white apparition works like an omen, connecting the crowd in Tokyo with the almost deserted streets of Fukushima.

There are actually subtle elements that guide the spectator’s memory in identifying the characters and reconstructing the story in his or her mind. The actors are not just standing there – they sometimes whisper, as if talking to themselves; other times they briefly gesticulate, oblivious to themselves. Time is an essential element in this process, for the actors seem to synchronize their memories with the help of the five clocks in the room. Moreover, when two characters happen to face each other, the audience suddenly becomes aware that they are remembering each other. With their memories engaging in dialogue, the relationships and the tensions between the characters become transparent.

This process of mutual remembering culminates towards the end of the performance, when all the characters seem to appear in Ikiune Minoru’s imagination. We realize that he has been the character that connects the separated threads into one story – a new version of Antigone, which has never been enacted in reality, but only in his dream. He is the one who went alone to Fukushima, only to find out the truth about the area affected by radiation, and, along with it, the truth about his feelings for Hibari Umemi, revealed to him by the mysterious Kuwabara Sanae. In spite of the revelation, Ikiune chooses to remain a prisoner of his own illusions, blind to the surrounding reality, becoming a tragic character himself. The image of king Oedipus hearing the truth from the foreteller Tiressias overlaps with the image of these two characters, providing for another dimension to the story, one that reaches far into archetypal memory.

The journey that the characters embark on takes them on the edge between life and death, between reality and delusion. Against a background of overwhelming, ineffable emotions, a new Antigone is unfolding in the minds of the audience, one that is pleading against oblivion through the unheard voices of the dead. The resulting work is a theatre of memories, one that reminds us of the mugen noh (“dream Noh”) plays, in which ghosts appear in the dream of a traveler reminiscing on the past. Like the centuries-long tradition of Noh plays, the theatre of memories is only possible if the characters and the audience share the same knowledge about past events.

In the case of “Record of a Journey to Antigone, and Its Performance”, the internet media used for recording the events has played a crucial role in disseminating the necessary background information towards the audience. Besides their function as sources of information, social networking systems and blogs are also platforms of human interaction, where we act using virtual identities – “characters” that correspond more or less like our real selves. In the same way, the characters of “Journey to Antigone” have been acting online through their fictional identities. As an audience, we were able to see for ourselves that the border between virtual identities and fictional ones is extremely fragile, making possible for fiction to infiltrate in our everyday reality.

For three months the actors have been playing their roles online, culminating with a performance in which their bodies create a space permeated by memories that enables the re-enactment of the events in the audience’s memory. Standing in the dim light and entrusting their bodies to memories for seven hours in a row, facing the curious, unprepared and, most often than not, provocative glances of the spectators, the actors have achieved an astonishing, unrepeatable performance. The concept of a play within a play is thus taken to a whole new dimension, made possible through the memories that the characters and the audience have in common. The visions and memories encapsulating each other have created a truly unforgettable experience that will no doubt linger for a while in the hearts of the audience.

by Ramona Taranu

(* This article has first appeared on the “Blog Camp in F/T” platform, a Festival/Tokyo 2012 program for young critics lead by performing arts journalist Iwaki Kyoko, and was reblogged with permission.)