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.)


Tsuki no misaki『月の岬』“Cape Moon”

Matsuda Masataka’s play Tsuki no misaki “Cape Moon” has been staged twice this year – once by Seinendan in June, and a second time by P Company in July. I was able to see the latter and it left a powerful impression on me.

Matsuda Masataka, presently active as director of Kyoto based theatre company Marebito no kai, is one of the prominent playwrights of contemporary Japanese theatre and a proponent of shizukana engeki – silent theatre .

Focusing on scenes of real life and using everyday speech, silent theatre seeks to direct attention to the drama within the seemingly uneventful daily life. The depths, the tensions and the crises it unveils lead to a reassessment of human connections and of what it means to belong to a community.

As you might guess, silent theatre appeared as a reaction to the abundance of spectacular theatre, which is most of the times very entertaining, yet thought provoking – sometimes bordering the surreal, other times challenging the spectator’s power to believe that such stunts are even possible. Researchers of contemporary theatre in Japan go as far as stating that the spectacular theatre had its peak in the 80s, being followed by the advent of silent theatre, which gained popularity in the 90s. The fact is that silent theatre and spectacular theatre coexist nowadays, with remarkable achievements on both sides, making up for the diversity of the Japanese performing arts scene.

The works Matsuda Masataka is best known for are set in Nagasaki region and employ the local dialect. His characters are common people, whose lives are marked by history and social customs, while the reality of life that comes to sight in his plays has a warm, nostalgic feel to it.

The plot of “Cape moon” unfolds in a space that appears to be a usual Japanese style room. It is actually a platform elevated above the level of the stage, reminding one of the loneliness and danger of a stone peak rising above the sea. The drama centers on a woman named Sawako and her younger brother Nobuo, who are living together in their parents’ house, and on how their life changes after Nobuo gets married. Along with their relatives’ opinion that she should move away, it happens that a former lover of Sawako returns from Tokyo to meet her again. His pressures on her bring unrest to the family. In addition, the very particular kind of bond that exists between Sawako and her brother and a scandal involving one of Nobuo’s students become a pressure to his bride, whose pregnancy ends in miscarriage. On the following night Sawako disappears without trace. Apparently, she had gone to the cape, which was now separated from the island by the tide water. There is the possibility that she had drowned herself in the sea. While still unclear of what happened to her, Nobuo’s wife gradually assumes her role as the lady of the house.

What is fascinating about the performance of this play is that what can be seen is only the tip of the iceberg, with the largest part of the story unfolding in the imagination – a challenge for the audience to reconstruct the whole story only on account of the details suggested through the characters’ conversation. As you find yourself relying more on your imagination than on your eyes, you embrace the images as they come, but sometimes you feel it is better to wait before jumping to conclusions. This is when your imagination comes to a standstill. To put it another way, if imagination were a muscle, this kind of drama would be a very good exercise.

One of the most powerful images invoked by this play is the full moon over the sea, an image that I would place in a gallery of dangerously beautiful landscapes, right along a forest of cherry trees in full bloom. (The play reminded me of an excellent short story by Sakaguchi Ango on the fearful beauty of such a forest, Sakura no mori no mankai no shita).

After seeing “Cape Moon” and having shared with the characters the burden of what remains unseen to the eye, you are left with the lingering impression that you climbed yourself on the lonely cape lit by the moonlight and even looked down into the sea, only to feel the danger of being lost in its depth.

For the latest news on Matsuda Masataka’s work, visit the website of Marebito no kai. The company will be participating in this year’s edition of Festival Tokyo F/T with their latest performance, Antigone e no tabi no kiroku to sono jōen  (“Records of the journey towards Antigone and its staging”).