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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Shakespeare as never before

Mecca of kabuki stages first-ever Western adaptation

Special to The Japan Times

Last October, 27-year-old kabuki actor Onoe Kikunosuke called theater director Yukio Ninagawa, who was working in London at the time, to see if he would create a unique kabuki piece for Kikunosuke's debut production for the Kabuki-za.

News photo
Princess Biwa (Onoe Kikunosuke) and Lord Oshino (Nakamura Shinjiro) at the moment he decides to marry her in Yukio Ninagawa's kabuki version of "Twelfth Night"

Together they decided to ask playwright Toyoshige Imai to write a kabuki script based on Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

Three firsts

Imai produced a three-act version of the play from Yushi Odajima's 1983 translation, with assistance from Ninagawa, Kikunosuke and Onoe Kikugoro (Kikunosuke's father).

Kikunosuke's choice of Ninagawa to direct his first Kabuki-za production was unusual, as Ninagawa has never directed kabuki before. As well, this is the first time that a Western play has been done in a traditional kabuki style. There have been shin kabuki (new kabiki) productions of Shakespeare and other Western plays, but never before had a Western script been given the full treatment with kabuki-style sets, music and costumes. In this performance then, there are three firsts for the kabuki world: the first time the popular young Kikunosuke initiated a production, the first time Ninagawa directed a kabuki performance and the first time kabuki has used a Western story.

News photo
Onoe Kikunosuke as Shuzennosuke talks to Princess Oribue (Nakamura Tokizo) in Yukio Ninagawa's production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"

The preliminary script was finished in late March, a first reading was done by the actors in late May, and full rehearsals started on June 27. Within 10 days, "Twelfth Night" was ready for its July 7 opening.

While Kikunosuke and Ninagawa's "Twelfth Night"is faithful to the original, the places and players have all been transposed to Japan. Duke Orsino's city of Illyria, on the shore of the Adriatic Sea, has been replaced by the nobleman Oshino's 14th-century domain on the sea-coast of the Kii Province in Japan. Kikunosuke performs the three lead roles of Shiba Shuzennosuke (Sebastian), Princess Biwa (Viola), and Shishimaru (Cesario), the male disguise Princess Biwa takes while serving Oshino. Trained in both tachiyaku (male) and onnagata (female) roles, Kikunosuke is well equipped to play the three parts, which require many hayagawari (quick changes on stage). Shakespeare's story allows him to exhibit both this kabuki tradition of men playing women's roles, as well as the Shakespearean tradition of men playing women playing men's roles.

In Imai's script, the tale follows the classic plot: Kikunosuke's elegant young samurai Shiba Shuzennosuke and pretty twin sister Princess Biwa are shipwrecked after a violent storm off the coast of the Kii Peninsula. Princess Biwa reaches Kata Beach alive, disguises herself as the male page Shishimaru, and begins to serve Oshino, ruler of Kii Province.

Desperately in love

Oshino is desperately in love with Oribue (Olivia), a beautiful princess who keeps rejecting him. He sends Shishimaru to Oribue to persuade her to accept his love, but Oribue falls in love with the handsome messenger at first sight, without having the faintest idea that he is actually a woman. Biwa/Shishimaru meanwhile finds herself gradually attracted to Oshino due to his sincerity in love. Thus the main plot of the play is formed by this love triangle of Oshino, Oribue and Biwa.

The 62-year-old Kikugoro makes a major contribution as both Oribue's grim-looking, deluded steward Bodayu (Malvolio) and as the amusing clown Sutesuke (Feste) who serves Oribue. Nakamura Tokizo, 50, exhibits superb skill in his onnagata acting in a wonderful turn as Princess Oribue; his younger brother Shinjiro plays Oshino. Ichikawa Sadanji, 64, is perfect as the mischievous Toin Kanemichi (Sir Toby Belch), who is paired with Oribue's clever maid Ma (Maria), played admirably by the 29-year-old onnagata actor Ichikawa Kamejiro.

The production is a complete transformation, presented by a group of highly talented kabuki actors dressed in typical kabuki fashion and speaking the Bard's lines in Japanese. The play is accompanied by traditional nagauta music and gidayu narration, while the background music is occasionally intermixed with the sound of a cembalo. Yuichiro Kanai, who has ample experience staging actor Ichikawa Ennosuke's Super Kabuki productions, has created an attractive Japanese stage set, with massive mirrors used on walls and sliding doors and backdrops that reveal Hokusai's prints of Mount Fuji.

Despite its Japanese trappings, the play still conveys the essence of Shakespearean comedy, showing his universal and modern appeal. It is full of the immensely enjoyable brisk exchanges and witty lines typical of his plays, and we laugh as we share his great sense of humor.

Even today, performed on the kabuki stage, you can see clearly Shakespeare's exquisite way of handling his characters and probing into their problems of love and human nature.

And due to the success of Kikunosuke and Ninagawa's production of "Twelfth Night," we may see an increase in the number of theatergoers who are interested in kabuki and kabuki performances.

Kabuki-za in Higashi-Ginza is presenting "Twelfth Night" through July 31. The four-hour performance is being staged twice daily, starting at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. For more information, call (03) 5565-6000, or visit www.kabuki-za.co.jp

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