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Thursday, June 22, 2006

AKIRA SHIRAI

Bringing "Lepage magic" to Tokyo


Special to The Japan Times

Last year, to mark the bicentennial of the birth of author Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75), Denmark held a yearlong celebration titled "Andersen Project 2005." Part of the project was a special commission to French-Canadian dramatist Robert Lepage to create a play commemorating the author's life and work. For fans of Andersen's fairy tales, the one-man play the 48-year-old Lepage came up with, "The Andersen Project: A Modern Fairy Tale," struck few familiar chords. Instead "A Modern Fairy Tale," which has already been staged more than 150 times worldwide, showed Andersen to be a social misfit who didn't like children and was overwhelmed by fame.

This week at Setagaya Public Theatre, Lepage presents the English-language version of the play, and the following week 49-year-old director/actor Akira Shirai will perform in a Japanese version. Shirai shared with The Japan Times his thoughts on Andersen and the play.

How are preparations going for "The Andersen Project"?

News photo
Akira Shirai stars in Robert Lapage's "The Andersen Project: A Modern Fairy Tale."

[laughs] I shouldn't laugh. I went to see Robert Lepage's stage in Montreal at the end of April, and I started my independent study then and have been practicing since the beginning of May.

How often have you met Lepage over the last three years?

I only met him few times. I got a tape of his world premiere in March 2005, then I met him in November in Japan. This April I went to see the production in Montreal, and it had changed completely. The last hour it almost became a different production.

Will you change your version now?

Maybe, but the play has nearly reached its completed version. Lepage takes a "work in progress" approach through rehearsals, and then even as the play is being staged -- so it is always progressing.

When I went to watch it in Montreal for a week, he changed the lines every day and added different projector scenes. He also changed the order of the scenes between the London production in February and the Montreal production in April. So, I presume it'll be changed in Lyons, where I am going tomorrow. After that, I guess it might change again in Tokyo.

Do you see it as a biography of Andersen?

It's not a biography. It's a modern-day fairy tale.

Honestly, I don't like conventional fairy tales much. Many people assume I am a big fan because I have used them as my plays' subject. But I don't really like fairy tales as a genre, because I don't really like the people in Japan who adore fairy tales.

It's difficult to explain why, but I am sick of hearing "fairy tales are so pure and special, like children, and like children they have such pure wisdom as their essence." Fairy tales and other stories are basically the same, and I think people are unnecessarily in awe of fairy tales.

Lepage tried to cast Frederic Lepoint, the hero of the play, as a mirror of Hans Christian Andersen. Lepage is also examining his own identity in the play, and I can see parts that reflect Lepage's own experience directly, so sometimes it seems like a nonfiction drama.

Eventually, the play addresses a universal experience -- that life is not a fairy tale in which people reach the final goal they dream of and work so hard to achieve. That it is impossible to find 100 percent satisfaction in real life comes across in Andersen's works in many ways.

Why do you feel such a connection with Lepage's productions?

First, there is what people call "Lepage magic." Lepage is obsessed with visual and sound effects, and I am too, as a director. I never just follow the plot of a story, because I believe that through visuals and sound, theatrical effects can be doubled and redoubled. The first time I saw one of his productions, I was encouraged, but also I was a bit jealous that such a great artist was in the same generation as myself. Since he came here with "Needles and Opium" [in 1993], I haven't missed anything he's done.

Second, a consistent theme for him is self-realization -- finding out who I am and how to live -- and that is exactly what I've been trying to pursue in my own work. I think that my generation is attracted to that theme.

Robert Lepage performs in "The Andersen Project -- A Modern Fairy Tale" at Setagaya Public Theatre from June 23-30 (with Japanese subtitles); Akira Shirai performs the Japanese version from July 1-8. For more information, call (03) 5432-1526 or visit www.setagaya-ac.or.jp/sept/


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