Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Letter from a theatre in Japan

When I was child, the theatre I fell in love with was a theatre that was not afraid or ashamed to be itself.

A theatre of magic and mystery; that told big stories with deep feeling..

Somewhere that did not reflect life in its banality. Somewhere concerned not so much with life as it is on the surface; but concerned with the inner life. Life as it might be. Life as it should be perhaps: something fuller and deeper that means more.

It’s something I hardly ever find in Britain. Though I’ve certainly worked hard to create it.

People always seem to be afraid. Afraid of “going over the top”. Afraid of too much feeling. Afraid of sentimentality and melodrama.

How strange, then, to be here in Japan,  half way round the world and in the midst of so much alien strangeness: and yet to feel myself so much at home.

Because Studio Life, the company performing my GREAT EXPECTATIONS in Tokyo, in so many ways are creating the kind of theatre I fell in love with all those years ago. A theatre not afraid to be big; not afraid of deep feeling; a theatre using every resource of body voice stagecraft and creative intelligence to communicate it. and that also means a theatre not afraid of virtuosic display;

It’s a style of acting that has its roots in Japan’s traditional theatre arts.  Here the industrial revolution severed our living links with the acting styles of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and got us stuck in an increasingly sterile obsession with naturalism. But there theatre still seems to be in touch with its roots.

They’re an all male theatre company whose director is a woman; a permanent ensemble that market themselves a bit like a boy band and who operate a fascinating double casting system that means actors swap roles and genders without thinking twice about it.

They divide into two teams and whilst a few of them play just one role in both teams - Adult Pip, Jaggers and Mr Wopsle - they mostly alternate.  So over two nights I saw the same actor playing Wemmick and Mrs Joe; Young Pip and a tailor; Biddy and a soldier (and a glamourous lady in the Richmond ball); Joe playing Bentley Drummle; Magwitch doubling as Molly; Miss Havisham as the servant in Bernard’s Inn and Estella as the man in London offering to show Pip a hanging. Among others…

It’s such an effective way of building up a company spirit and such an amazing way of training young actors.

There’s obviously a friendly rivalry between both teams; and this opens up a whole new dimension of audience pleasure. the audience, interestingly, are at least 90% female; and are not only devoted but incredibly empowered and well informed. Over the thirty years of their existence, the company has built up a large official fan base. Their fan club runs into the thousands, who not only see every production, but often see every production twice. To compare performances and see which they prefer.

It’s a completely absorbing occupation, as i found out for myself. It was so interesting to see how Estella number 1 excelled in her opening scenes. I suddenly saw something I had never seen before: a rather awkward tomboy furious at having been put into a frilly dress and play a gender role that did not suit her. And then taking her revenge on Pip… But Estella number two gave so beautiful a pathos to her final scene. Singing her lullaby to a completely hushed audience whose rapt silence was only broken by the sound of sobbing.

Or to watch the very beautiful tenderness of Biddy on the first night; and then see the same actor transformed into a soldier and brutally mistreating Magwitch in the second.

And I loved it, too, how at the end of the curtain call on the first two nights the cast all took a turn to step out of their roles, be themselves for a moment, and thank the audience for coming.

On the very first day I arrived to visit them, there was Magwitch sitting with the sewing ladies finishing off a frock. because everyone does a bit of everything. It’s like a big family, Nozomi Abe, my translator explained. Everyone does a bit of everything. And it’s a family she now feels she belongs to too.

On the whole in our country we don’t know what it’s like to truly belong to a company. I caught a glimpse of it once, in the late eighties, when I belonged to the Traverse and wrote a play for them just about every year. Looking back, that was my most productive period and a time when I produced some of my best work. I was so hurt when that association was insensitively ended in the early nineties. Sometimes I wonder whether I ever truly recovered…

At the end of my last night in Tokyo the actor playing Estella (Estella number 2) stopped to shake my hand. At her curtain call she spoke of how this was her first major part with the company, how honoured she felt, and how unsure of herself and how much she wanted to get better. Then she’d been with her colleagues, still in full make-up and costume, greeting her public and hawking merchandise in the crowded theatre foyer.

It was lovely to be able to shake her hand and congratulate her. As I looked her in the eye I suddenly had a vision of myself in an alternative world. Where I could have been accepted into a company and develop my talents as an actor without fear or shame.Where I could have gone on to become a writer and director too.

I might well have turned into a more complete and rounded theatre artist. And a happier one also.

But one thing is for sure: this is a very special theatre company. Recovering with great courage from the recent death of Kiichiro Kawauchi their co-founder. A company with so much to teach us. A company I feel so honoured to be part of: and who I so profoundly and fervently wish well.

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