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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A woman scorned

Shinobu Otake rages as Medea

Special to The Japan Times

The continuing shock appeal of "Medea" by Euripides (480-406 B.C.), is not simply due to its dramatization of infanticide and the rage of a woman who has been scorned by her lover, but also because it touches on other universal themes such as the perennial position of underdogs in society, and how they may choose not to accept their lot.

News photo
Shinobu Otake as Medea (below) and with Katsuhisa Namase as Jason in "Medea."
News photo

Medea's second-class status comes as a woman in a world dominated by another "male" mentality, but also as a mysterious foreigner from the barbarian country of Colchis (present-day Georgia).

For Japan's renowned and amazingly industrious director Yukio Ninagawa, this production at Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo's Shibuya marks a return to the play that in 1983 first put his name on the world drama map when he toured it first around Japan and then France, Italy, Greece, Canada, the United States, Taiwan, England and Egypt.

In a nutshell, the ancient tale he retells here is of Medea (Shinobu Otake), a young woman with magical powers who kills her brother in order to keep her forbidden lover Jason (Katsuhisa Namase), then moves with him from Colchis to Greece, where they have two sons.

But then Creon (Kotaro Yoshida), the powerful king of Corinth, decrees that Jason will become his daughter's husband, and orders Medea and her sons to leave the country within a day. When the flattered and meekly compliant Jason turns up to bid farewell, Medea flies into a fury and kills not only Creon and his daughter with her magic arts, but then also knifes her own two sons to ensure Jason loses all.

That done, she flees to a new life in Athens, where her old friend -- and Creon's rival -- King Aegeus (Hiroo Kasahara) is happy to accept her.

Back in 1978 when he first staged "Medea" in Japan, Ninagawa took an unconventional approach using an all-male cast and symbolically encasing Medea in a heavy, rigid kimono -- as a way of objectifying her femininity. He explained his interpretation in a 2002 book-length interview titled "Enshutsujutsu (Art of Direction)," as being a story about the battle between men's Western-style, black-and-white logic and women's essentially emotional, intuitive and polychrome nature.

This time Ninagawa has shunned all such strivings for "objectivity" in favor of a "Medea" that turns entirely on the character of its protagonist. Indeed, as the director freely admits in the program notes, he has taken this route here because of Otake's outstanding ability as an actress. Consequently, this production is all about Medea's emotional turmoil and power, laying bare her jealousy, pride and -- especially when she meets Aegeus to ask him to take her in -- her cunning.

The result is so stripped of mythological overtones, and so raw, as to be almost like a contemporary work highlighting the upsurge of the power of women in Japan -- that, in a society of dronelike males whose previously assumed authority is now deserting them.

In truth, this take on one of the iconic works from the ancient Greek dramatic canon is like nothing so much as the story of a feuding middle-aged couple in contemporary Japan.

Valid as this interpretation may or may not be, it has to be said that here -- as he often appears to do -- Ninagawa seems to have eschewed his task of directing the actors and left them to get on with that themselves. Instead, the director appears to have concentrated on what so obviously enthralls him, which is the creation of a stunning visual spectacle. He draws on many of his favorite motifs, employing the likes of a lifesize horse, huge artificial lotus flowers positioned around the stage and even a pool at the front. Then, finally, the audience is treated to the fairground attraction of a dragon chariot appearing suddenly to take Medea off to her new life.

The net result, it seems, is a work that's a fine showcase for the ever-absorbing talents of Otake, but unfortunately one that lacks the grand universality, depth and dramatic sensation that Ninagawa has, in the past, drawn from the original. Perhaps what is fundamentally missing here is more active debate and dispute in rehearsal about the difference between male and female thinking, rather than an easy reliance on the star and other flamboyant attractions.

"Medea" runs till May 28 at the Theatre Cocoon, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. For more details, call, Theatre Cocoon at (03) 3477-3244 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp

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