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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2005

The Bard in abundance in Edo Japan

Special to The Japan Times

After four hours rejoicing in my seat as I watched "Tempo 12-nen no Shakespeare (Shakespeare in the 12th year of Tempo)" at the Theatre Cocoon, had I been wearing one I would have taken off my hat to the team who delivered the marvelous, grand-scale production -- director Yukio Ninagawa, writer Hisashi Inoue, music director Ryudo Uzaki and the entire, accomplished cast.

News photo
Hisashi Inoue's "Tempo 12-nen no Shakespeare" at Theatre Cocoon (above); Toshiaki Karasawa as Miyoji and Ryoko Shinohara as Omitsu PHOTOS COURTESY OF THEATRE COCOON
News photo

Beforehand, this production had always been one to look forward to, though I had worried whether such a deluxe lineup of talents would be able to combine successfully to realize their potential. But from the very start, it was obvious that the world-renowned 69-year-old Ninagawa had worked his magic on 70-year-old Inoue's epic -- a single play that combines all 37 of Shakespeare's plays into one story.

Set in 1841, the 12th year of the Tempo Era in the late Edo Period, "Tempo 12-nen no Shakespeare" was first staged in 1974, but as it was then five hours long, its success was marred by many audience members having to leave before the end to catch last trains. Then in 2002, director Hidenori Inoue's rock music staging overwhelmed the heady theatrical cocktail's sublime flavor.

This time around, however, the play has been given a needed edit by Inoue, and Ninagawa grabs us right from the start with a roaring pace that never slackens. He begins his version of the play in Shakespeare's own Globe Theatre, as peasants charge the stage carrying buckets on poles and dismantle the Globe's main pillars as they sing, "If William Shakespeare had never lived . . . so many people would never have received English Literature PhDs . . . theater producers would have been denied full-house bonuses." By both acclaiming the Bard's genius and symbolically demolishing the pillars, Ninagawa immediately signals what he's about -- deconstructing Shakespeare to create a decidedly Japanese work.

After this boisterously staged entry, Ninagawa lets Inoue's storytelling take over: first is an episode from "King Lear" in which Kotaro Yoshida's Lord Buri no Jubei (the counterpart to Shakespeare's King Lear) has decided to distribute his estate to his three daughters, Keiko Takahashi's Ofumi (Goneril), Mari Natsuki's Osato (Regan) and Ryoko Shinohara's Omitsu (Cordelia).

Lord Buri no Jubei's youngest, Omitsu, leaves home after refusing to compete with her sisters for his love, so he divides his estate between the other two, who quickly start to scheme against one another, with love affairs and bloody murders destroying all harmony. Then Jubei/Lear is mistakenly killed, like Polonius in "Hamlet," by Oze no Makubei (Masanobu Katsumura) the Macbeth-esque lover of Osato/Regan. Soon after, Ofumi's lover Kuroji (Tokuma Nishioka) kills her husband (Kuroji's older brother Monta, who Nishioka also plays), before marrying her. Ofumi's son, Kijirushi no Ouji (Tatsuya Fujiwara), falls into paranoia and murmurs several of the famous Japanese translations of the soliloquy "To be or not to be."

From "Hamlet" it's on to the doomed romance of "Romeo and Juliet," the mistaken identity of "Twelfth Night" and "The Comedy of Errors," and the political drama of "Richard III." It is wonderful to behold how Inoue weaves his plot through borrowed episodes and transformed characters -- for example, Toshiaki Karasawa's Sado no Miyoji (Richard III) isn't a deformed aristocrat but a farmer whose back is hunched due to hard work. His rise to power, though, is the pure dark scheming of Iago from "Othello."

Building on the universals in Shakespeare's plays, Inoue does more than illuminate human nature through the prism of the Edo Period. His imaginative sampling creates a dramatic masterpiece that is richly inspired. Shakespeare experts and novices will be pleased with his success, where many have failed, in cleverly incorporating Japanese linguistic riddles that mimic Shakespeare's sublime way with the English language.

While the actors all gave excellent performances, it was the actresses who really stood out. Takahashi and Natsuki's fatal rivalry as Lear's daughters was something to witness, while Ryoko Shinohara was outstanding in a dual role and Kayoko Shiraishi brought tremendous presence to one of Macbeth's witches. Above all, Tomoko Mariya's brilliant, sensitive portrayal of Ofuyu (Ophelia) as she loses her mind after being spurned by Ouji (Hamlet) left this reviewer longing for the day when she plays that part in full.

Although Ninagawa has had his share of detractors over the years, in this current production he has polished Inoue's great tale close to perfection. In addition, he has made Shakespeare easily accessible by coaxing markedly clear deliveries from his 43-strong cast and using electronic displays to show the lyrics of the 15 riddle-ridden songs arranged by pop music producer Ryudo Uzaki. His recent production of "Twelfth Night" at the Kabukiza has obviously influenced him -- in "Tempo 12-nen no Shakespeare" he uses a wide, flat stage and hayagawari (quick costume changes) to allow actors to play multiple roles. Cherry trees as part of the scenery, kimono as costumes and moveable tatami-style areas as sets all highlight the Japanese nature of the production. Still, Ninagawa restores the Globe's pillars in the end, closing this magnificent window on Japan and paying homage to the Bard, who, after all, made it all possible.

"Tempo 12-nen no Shakespeare" runs till Oct. 22 at Theatre Cocoon, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. For more details, call (03) 3477-9999 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp

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