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.)

Advertisements

Tokyo Theatres in March

For this month there are three stages that I would recommend heartily:

"Demons" by Chiten (March 10th-23rd, KAAT)

“Demons” by Chiten (March 10th-23rd, KAAT)

  • Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” – Akuryō悪霊』in Japanese – is being dramatized by theatre company Chiten 地点in collaboration with the Kanagawa Arts Theatre. It will be performed from March 10th through the 23rd. Responsible for the direction is Miura Motoi 三浦基, whose name guarantees the quality of the work. It is a performance fervently awaited by the Japanese theatre world.
  • At the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater we will be able see Shiftシフト』, a performance by theatre company Sample, from March 14th through the 23rd. Shift is actually one of the earlier creations of director Matsui Shū 松井周, performed in 2007 for the first time. Matsui’s theatre is known for showing human beings in critical situations, constrained to think and to act beyond the social establishment. Shift is a story about a community facing the dilemma of having to choose between preserving its old ways and embracing outsiders in order to ensure its own continuity. I guess it is needless to point out the subtle hints at some problems that Japanese society is facing nowadays. Let me just say that when talking about the frontlines of contemporary Japanese theatre, Sample is a unit which deserves all the attention.

    "The Merchant of Hinemi" (U-ench saisei jigyodan)

    “The Merchant of Hinemi” (U-ench saisei jigyodan)

  • U-ench saisei jigyōdan’s Hinemi no shōninヒネミの商人』“The Merchant of Hinemi”, written by playwright and director Miyazawa Akio 宮沢章夫, will be restaged for the first time in 21 years from March 20th through the 30th at Za-Kōenji 座・高円寺. This work is based loosely on “The Merchant of Venice” and “Hinemi”, the play that brought Miyazawa the Kishida Kunio Playwrights Award in 1993. Hinemi is the name of the fictional town where the action takes place. Amid their daily routine, the characters find something important enough to change their view on life – this is what the play promises to be about.

Spring is almost here, a reason good enough to get ready for a new start 🙂

Best performances of 2013

Looking back at the theatre performances seen this year (I do keep of record of them, otherwise many of them would risk disappearing into oblivion…) is one of the most fun things to do now when we’re preparing to welcome the New Year.

My theatre list for 2013 comprises 52 performances, differing greatly in genre and in scale. Each title conjures up stories, images and thoughts, so it is very difficult to select what I would call the best among them. To ignore the fact that they belong to different genres and that they cannot be easily compared to one another makes the selection task unfair from the start. But if I should honestly name three performances that left a deep impression on me, I would choose these:

  • Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan 『東海道四谷怪談』 by Kinoshita Kabuki 木ノ下歌舞伎 – a contemporary version of the famous kabuki play by the same title. Both the head of the troupe, Kinoshita Yūichi  木ノ下裕一, and the director of this particular work, Sugihara Kunio  杉原邦生, are young artists taking the contemporary interpretation of kabuki works very seriously – in a fun way. With this performance spanning over about six hours they showed us an ingenious approach to Tsuruya Naboku’s play, which manages to stay closer to the original text than the actual kabuki stage. You can get a glimpse of their style by watching this video:
  • Symposium by Tokyo Deathlock. As I mentioned in this article, I appreciated this work for three reasons: 1) the way it involves the audience, doing away with the usual, hierarchical relationship between actor and spectator; 2) for its very subtle play with the border between fiction and reality, and 3) for the concept of acting by “guided improvisation” – director Tada Junnosuke 多田淳之介 entrusts the contents and the lines to the actors, offering them only guidelines, a framework within which they should act. This is what makes every performance of this work an unrepeatable experience.
  • “Dear Late Summer Sister” Natsu no owari no imōto『夏の終わりの妹』by U-ench saisei jigyōdan 遊園地再生事業団. For a short presentation of this work, please refer to this previous blog post. With a plot going to and fro between real geographical places and fictional ones, defying both space and time, “Dear Late Summer Sister” is a very dense work, both contents- and acting-wise. It is truly what one could call “intertextual theatre”, where meaning emerges through layers upon layers of memory, narratives and images.

As far as my theatre viewing is concerned, 2013 was overall a satisfying year, with many enlightening discoveries. There is something like a virtual map of the Japanese theatre world gradually taking contours in my head. To be sure, it is a living, moving map, with more than three dimensions. You may call it a typical researcher’s fixation to take the time and think about every performance and to try to place it on this map. At the same time I feel one should be very careful not to get too absorbed by this kind of tools, for they are only of temporary use. One of the things I learned this year is that the Japanese theatre landscape is changing at a high pace – what seems fresh this year becomes obsolete in the next, that is why clear-cut remarks and categorizations are very tricky. In any case, for now there’s nothing better than knowing that there is still a lot to do, to see and to write about.

Let me finish this entry in a Japanese way, by thanking all of you, the readers of this blog, for your continuous support. I’d be very grateful if you would keep checking out for updates in the year to come. I wish you all a happy New Year, full of joyful events and stimulating encounters. 🙂

Tokyo theatres in September

Daylight time getting shorter and rain falling almost every day are signs that we are enjoying the last days of summer. However temperatures are still high, good over 30°C, so there is probably no better place than the theatre for those seeking shelter from the heat 🙂

The event that everyone is talking about right now is the SIS Company production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” 『かもめ』Kamome at the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon, running from September 4th through the 28th . Not only does it boast the direction of Keralino Sandorovich, one of the most original theatre creators of the moment, but it also comes with a remarkable cast, featuring names like Ikuta Tōma, Aoi Yū, Nomura Mansai and Ōtake Shinobu, who are best known as stars of the screen.

The performance that I’m personally looking forward to is “Dear Late Summer Sister” 『夏の終わりの妹Natsu no owari no imōto, which is the latest work of U-ench saisei jigyōdan 遊園地再生事業団, the theatre company run by Miyazawa Akio. I had the chance to hear a reading of the play back in July, that’s why I can tell for sure it is worth it. It is the story of Jahana Motoko, a woman born in Okinawa, who moves to Tokyo. She tries to get a license as an interviewer, in order to be able to ask people questions – about the earthquake that hit the Tōhoku region in 2011, about the U.S. military bases in Okinawa, things that the people around here have the tendency to avoid talking about. The whole frame of the story is permeated by the healthy humor and the broad theatrical vision that are Miyazawa’s trademark. It will be running at the Owlspot in Ikebukuro from September 13th through the 22nd.

Talking about play readings, the Kyōto based theatre company Chiten 地点, whose unforgettable staging of Elfriede Jelinek’s “Kein Licht” last year at Festival/Tokyo is stiil vivid in the memory of Tokyo audiences, will be doing a reading of Büchner’s “Lenz” at the Goethe-Institut Tokyo (September 13th -14th). Given the affinity of Chiten’s director Miura Motoi with the theatre of German speaking countries, it promises to be a very original interpretation of the classic. This reading is part of a series of events marking the anniversary of 200 years since the birth of Georg Büchner. A performance of “Woyzeck” combining dance and theatre in an experimental attempt to project this 19th century work into our times, is also part of the program (Komaba Agora theatre, September 13th-23rd). For more information, please visit the webpage of the Goethe-Institut.

From the smaller scale performances going on this month I picked up “Kappore!” 『かっぽれ!夏』of theatre company green flowers, winner of last year’s edition of Ikebukuro Theatre festival, an event organized by the local authorities of the Toshima district in Tokyo. Their prize-winning work Fukigenna Maria no kigen (“The deadline of bad-tempered Maria”) featured the story of Mori Mari, daughter of writer Mori Ōgai, and her inner struggles concerning the publication of her own novels. “Kappore!” focuses on a fictional family of rakugoka, performers of the art of rakugo – a kind of stand-up comedy that thrives in Japan ever since the Edo period. Where there is rakugo, there is laughter, so the play promises to be interesting. It will run from September 6th through the 8th at the Owlspot Theater.

Two performances at the Ōji shogekijo, Hana to sakana (“Flowers and fish”) by theatre group Jūnana senchi 十七戦地 (September 12th-17th), which promises to be a good-taste SF, and Ma-n-da-ra, an adaptation of a three-century old horror story by Gekidan Rokkotsumikandōkōkai 劇団肋骨蜜柑同好会 (September 19th – 23rd), are also among my pick-ups for this month.

Hagoromo © Noh.com

Hagoromo © Noh.com

The most awaited event of the month in the world of Noh is a special performance marking the anniversary of 30 years since the opening of the National Noh Theater, which will be held on September 17th. After the opening act – Tsurukame, a short congratulatory Noh, played by Kondō Kannosuke (Hōshō school), the program will feature Hagoromo “The Celestial Feather Robe”, with actor Tomoeda Akio of the Kita school playing the main role, then a kyōgen piece, Iori no ume, starring Nomura Man, and another Noh play in the end – the very entertaining Shakkyō, performed by Kanze Tetsunojō.

Hagoromo 『羽衣』is the story of a celestial maiden, whose robe of feathers is about to be taken away by a fisherman. As she cannot fly back to heaven without her robe, the maiden promises to perform a celestial dance, so she receives her robe back. After her dance of joy she thanks the fisherman and disappears into the sky. This very simple plot is the subject of various legends that are close to the heart of the Japanese, that is why this Noh play is one of the most often performed ones. The words of the angel – “doubt is a thing of the earth, there is no deceiving in the realm of the sky” – have a special echo and are the highlight of this Noh, besides the dance itself.

Please take the time to have a look at the stage photos of Hagoromo on Noh.com, as they will reveal why this Noh is held dear by everyone who has heard the story of the celestial maiden and her feather robe.

Tokyo theatres in August

Summer is the holiday season for theatres in Europe – a difficult time for theatre lovers, who are thus deprived of their favorite enjoyment for three long months. However it is also the time of performing arts festivals, which do a great job in filling the gap until September, when theatres resume their activities. With Festival d’Avignon in July and The Fringe going on right now until the end of August in Edinburgh, there is still a lot to see and to experience, although clustered in one corner of the continent or another.

In Japan there is no off season for theatres, so business is going on as usual, with hundreds of performances every week, leaving both artists and audiences no time to even dream of feeling bored 🙂 Regardless of their scale, the shows in summer tend to be exuberant, invigorating and full of joie de vivre, so you can rest assured you’ll be leaving the theatre in high spirits no matter where you happen to enter.

Here is a very small selection of August performances, which I would recommend heartily:

Unarguably the most awaited show of this summer in Tokyo is ABKAI ―えびかい―, starring kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizō and comprising two performances – Jayanagi『蛇柳』, a famous play in the kabuki repertoire, firstly performed by Edo period kabuki star Ichikawa Danjurō in 1763, and Hanasaka jiisan『花咲じいさん』, an original kabuki dramatization of a Japanese fairy-tale. Award-winning dramatist Miyazawa Akio has been entrusted with writing the script for the latter, while Miyamoto Amon, renowned for his staging of musicals, is responsible for its direction. With this trio of highly acclaimed artists, the performance promises to be a real success. “ABKAI” has already started on August 3rd and will continue until the 18th at Bunkamura Theater Cocoon in Shibuya.

At the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Theatre East, the theatre company mum & gypsy will perform their latest work “cocoon” from August 5th through 18th. Originally a manga by illustrator Kyō Machiko, “cocoon” depicts Okinawa during World War II. The mixture of real facts with fantasy in this work has been praised enthusiastically, leading to its dramatization under the supervision of young director Fujita Takahiro, himself an artist who has been gathering much attention recently.

Yaneura © Rinkogun

Yaneura © Rinkogun

Starting with August 30th through September 5th we will have the chance to see Rinkōgun’s famous work “The Attic” Yaneura『屋根裏』(directed by Sakate Yōji), which will be restaged at the company’s atelier Umegaoka Box. (Yes, you’ve got it right. The whole action unfolds inside that trapezoid box!). Rinkōgun will be touring Europe this year in September, by the way, with performances of “The Attic” in Ukraine and Italy.

The performances I personally look forward to seeing this month:

On the side of traditional performing arts there is a special summer event held on August 29th at the National Noh Theatre, consisting of three separates acts, each belonging to a different genre of comedy – kyōgen “Hanaori”, rakugo “Shinigami” and kōdan “Hachi no ki”.

Have a fabulous summer, everyone, wherever you happen to find yourselves, inside or outside the theatre 🙂