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Wednesday, July 6, 2005

'Noises Off' finds the right director

Special to The Japan Times

While tragedy is universal, comedy tends to be far more culturally specific, and this is especially true with theater. When drama is transposed out of its vernacular, audiences can be expected to tune in more easily to a mournful melodrama or saga of self-destruction than to a humorous work with all the nuances, inferences and subtleties that lovers of the stage expect from comedic drama.

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Ayako Sawada and Tomohiko Imai in "Noises Off" PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NEW NATIONAL THEATRE, TOKYO

This is no doubt why companies here in Japan more often stage Shakespeare tragedies such as "King Lear" or "Hamlet" than his far more culture-specific "The Merrie Wives of Windsor," whose jokes and humorous situations rely more heavily on specific knowledge of English culture.

As a result of this natural understanding gap, there have been many translated comedies performed here to near-mute, uncomprehending houses, and many farces which, due to the time-lag of puzzlement in audiences' brains, have lost their vital tempo.

Right now, however, with his version of English dramatist Michael Frayn's masterpiece "Noises Off" at the New National Theatre in Tokyo, 48-year-old director Akira Shirai is demonstrating a wonderful way to pull off a translated, farcical comedy.

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The assembled cast.

Though it scooped the London Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy of the Year in 1982, and an Olivier Award the year after, when this play, which had audiences hooting with laughter back home, was staged as recently as in 2002 at Le Theatre Ginza, it was met with baffled silence. But Shirai has cleverly done away with awkward untranslatables and is getting raucous reactions from Tokyo audiences.

As its title suggests,"Noises Off" is a backstage farce. Act I presents us with the scene of a rehearsal for a sex comedy titled "Nothing On," which is set to open the next day. Due to problems with the script and preparation time, however, the second-rate actors involved are struggling to remember their lines and the crucial timings of their entries and exits -- all of which makes the farcical side of the comedy work.

During that turbulent rehearsal, the director's voice -- Shirai himself in the role -- shrills and screams from his desk set in the middle of the auditorium, from where he descends onto the stage many times in a series of desperate attempts to give acceptable form to the near-chaos. As he does so -- in a simple but effective masterstroke of adaptation -- Shirai is constantly calling on the actors using their real names, such (Ayako) Sawada and (Tomohiko) Imai, so eliminating the need for the audience to fix on foreign names and confront a problem at that most basic level.

In addition, to further break down barriers of unfamiliarity and ease audience identification, when the play-within-the-play in "Noises Off" goes on tour in Acts II and III, Shirai takes it not to English local theaters as in the original, but to Kita-Kyushu and the Ryutopia Arts Center in Niigata Prefecture.

Then, when a veteran actor in the story (Bin Moritsuka) is telling tales of his illustrious past, he refers not to the famed actors Frayn cited, but to ones like Osamu Takizawa who everyone knows, and to venues such as the (real) Haiyuza Theatre in Tokyo's Roppongi district. Similarly, a real scandal from Sawada's private life, her divorce, was also built in to Shirai's script, and in addition, each audience member found a pretend program for the make-believe play "Nothing On" waiting for them on their seat.

By freeing the Japanese audience of unnecessary English impediments through these simple devices, Shirai effectively allows them to focus on, and enjoy far more, both the dialogue and the slapstick humor -- a focus that rewards him and the other players with almost constant laughter from the auditorium.

This is especially so in Act II, when, as the curtain rises, we see not the rehearsal stage for "Nothing On," but its backstage area where -- even as some progress is being made with the rehearsal -- we gather all kinds of passions and rivalries are flaring among the cast, primarily provoked by various romantic entanglements.

Finally, in Act III, we are transported to the last night of the tour, by when we see those backstage dramas have taken over the play itself, with actors almost at blows, making up their own lines to vent their feelings, fluffing their timing as they bicker and squabble and reducing all the director's efforts to stage "Nothing On" to hilarious disaster that has his real audience in fits.

Though he stays true to the spirit and structure of Frayn's complicated and delicately balanced original, by sprinkling soy sauce instead of vinegar on his "Noises Off" here, Shirai delivers a fabulously entertaining, nonstop, uptempo drama-farce that -- just as tragedy can more easily do -- truly strikes a universal chord.

It is a chord that seems to strike the actors too, with many of them really showing character in their roles in this production that, due to its complicated timings, visual gags and slapstick, promises only to get better through its two-week run.

"Noises Off" runs till July 14 at the New National Theatre, a 2-minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. For more details, call, the New National Theatre at (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp

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