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Thursday, July 27, 2006

The revenge of the Red Demon

Leading dramatist Hideki Noda takes the sting out of past failures on the world stage with 'The Bee'

Special to The Japan Times

Playwright, actor and director Hideki Noda has been the undisputed leader of the Japanese contemporary theater world for 30 years. In that time he has written, directed and often acted in more than 60 plays in Japan -- all of them hits or superhits among his mushrooming fanbase. In fact, Noda has been so successful in both the drama world and youth culture that, since the early 1980s, tickets for each new production have unfailingly sold out within hours of going on sale. Not only that, but largely through his success -- which has seen him described in mainstream media as the standard bearer for young artists -- Noda has been instrumental in elevating contemporary theater in Japan from the cliquey side-stream scene it had always inhabited to the vibrant cultural position it now occupies.

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Hideki Noda, pictured above on stage with Kathryn Hunter behind him, has impressed West End critics with his second production in London, "The Bee," at the Soho Theatre (bottom top). The play explores how Hunter's character goes from victim to criminal after his family is taken hostage. KEITH PATTERSON (above, bottom photo three and four); NOBUKO TANAKA PHOTOS (bottom photo one and two)
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Onto even the most gilded of lives, however, a little rain is wont to fall. For Noda, this has come in the form of repeated failures to reproduce his domestic success overseas. There have been two downpours -- The first was his "Half Gods," a manga-mythology drama that left audiences cold at the Edinburgh Festival in 1990. Then, in 2003, his "Red Demon" at the Young Vic theater in London bombed. Despite being staged in English with a blue-chip local cast, that play about Japanese people's dislike of anyone different -- which had been such a hit at home -- seemed irrelevant to audiences (and critics) in a country where racial discrimination has long been illegal and everyone is used to British people who are white, black, brown, yellow or something in between. The Observer's critic stated that "it's as if there's something ineffable lying on the stage, but nobody can be bothered to say what it is."

Failure is perhaps more painful for those who are so used to success. The proudly independent and charismatic 50-year-old dramatist, who was born in Nagasaki, but has been a Tokyo resident since his family moved to the capital when he was 4, was already beginning to be widely known while he was still at high school, where the plays he wrote, directed and acted in have become legendary. One time he had to stage extra performances after students from other neighboring schools began turning up in droves. When he was a student at the prestigious University of Tokyo in the late 1970s, he founded the Yumeno Yuminsha (Dreaming Bohemian) company. While self-mockingly describing himself as "one of the elite" in program notes at that time, the dynamic, idealistic and imaginative productions that Noda began to write, direct and act in with his company were powerful beacons for a generation of artists whose work was part of a social movement stridently challenging the real, aged and conservative elite at the top of the social, political and cultural tree in Japan. Ever quixotic, though, when Yumeno Yuminsha was at the height of its power in 1992, Noda broke up the company and headed to London to study drama for a year on an education ministry (Monbusho) scholarship -- his only break to date from staging productions as Japan's leading contemporary dramatist since beginning his theater career at university.

Reflecting on the disastrous reception that "Red Demon" received in that same city 11 years later, Noda told The Japan Times recently that "it seemed that some people in the audiences in London were confused (as to) what the play was about."

Chastened but unbowed, Noda reacted to his failure by determining to find out why the same play was received so differently by audiences in Japan and England -- and to make sure he didn't plunge into the same cultural abyss again. This involved him traveling five times to London to conduct workshops with English actors as he developed his new work, "The Bee," which he was writing in English, unlike "Red Demon," which had been translated from Japanese. This time he carefully selected the plot, basing it not, as in "Red Demon," around nuances of discrimination particular to his home culture and boring to others already living in a multicultural society, but on hostage-taking and chains of retaliation sadly familiar to all who are daily repulsed by gore-ridden current events in Palestine, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Allied to his trademark "physical" way of direction, there is no doubt judging from ecstatic reviews in the British press, and brisk ticket sales, that this time Noda -- who aspires to create nothing less than universal drama -- has learned fast and is truly showing himself to be among the elite on the global stage.

"(The Bee) is extremely simple but lifted out of the ordinary by Kathryn Hunter's superb gender-bending performance as the ruthless Mr. Ido, and by Hideki Noda's production in which the everyday and the bizarre, the real and the surreal become as mangled as a bowl of noodles," declared The Guardian, the Observer's sister paper.

Ironically, Noda's adoring domestic fans must wait until next June for the play's arrival on the domestic stage.

On the lovely sunny Monday morning just before the premiere of "The Bee," when victory was anything but certain and past defeats his only reality, Noda made time for this interview at a cafe next to the Soho Theatre, where it was staged in London's West End.

Looking back, how do you feel about that staging of "Red Demon" in London?

Well, I had asked Kathryn Hunter to be in the cast, but she could not make up her mind because she did not really know my work. Then, after she saw the premiere, she came to me and said she should have taken up the offer and she wanted to work together at the next opportunity. Also, at that time I did not know how important the press night is here in terms of how much the reviews affect ticket sales. But this time with "The Bee" we have been changing it right through the preview stages. In terms of content, after "Red Demon" I was thinking what would be more suitable for London. I thought biting egui [humor on the edge of bad taste], like Monty Python, might fit. Even though "Red Demon" included cannibalism, perhaps it came across as superficial and I should have made more of it. So "The Bee" -- which I wrote with the Irish dramatist Colin Teevan -- has that biting taste, because it's about an ordinary man whose family is taken hostage by criminals and so he decides to become a criminal as well to try to free them. Normally, people can't see that on TV or in real life, so I chose this story.

When you first brought your plays to the Edinburgh Festival in 1987 and 1990, did you expect that Britain would continue to figure so much in your life?

While I was doing plays in Japanese with English subtitles at the Edinburgh Festival, I always wondered how much the audiences really understood them, and I didn't just want to do them in the hope of getting a curtain call at the end. What I wanted to do was to slip into the heart of this English theater world in English, and I wanted to stage my work on the same level as other English plays -- not as a special guest from overseas.

Yukio Ninagawa, who is the most well-known Japanese dramatist in Britain, has said in interviews that he works with British dramatists to get a new creative impetus. What draws you to this country?

I want to come to London until nobody asks me why I come here [laughs]. Nobody asks me anymore why I am working in theater in Japan, and I would like to be at that level in this country, too. Nobody asks European dramatists why they come to the U.K. Nobody asks Japanese businessmen why they come to the U.K.

In Japan, ever since you were in your early 20s your tickets have always sold out before the opening night. Is that boring for you as a dramatist?

Probably, a bit. I feel so excited about the ticket sales here. Actually this Saturday is the first time here that one of my productions has sold out. When I visited the Edinburgh Festival with Yumeno Yuminsha as a special guest it was almost full, but it was not sold out. However, on Saturday the tickets sold out completely, and there were even people queuing for returns. It was honestly a memorable day in my theater career.

You have said you do not care about reviews. Is that true, or is it only about reviews in Japan?

It's not only about Japanese reviews. Of course, human nature dictates that I am glad to read good ones and I feel bad reading bad ones. But in Japan it's just a bad feeling and it doesn't affect ticket sales because we are always sold out in advance, so I am not sure about the meaning of reviews there. Ooops! Sorry, because you are a critic! Nowadays, there are a lot of new theater awards in Japan. . . . Of course I am pleased to get an award, but I only say "tut!" if I don't [laughs] and it worries me that these awards will make Japanese dramatists go in a wrong direction. Basically, Japan is a "grading" society and people love to get top grades.

How has your view of the English drama world changed over the last 20 years?

As always, I respect the English drama world. It is generous in many ways, I think. For example, Kathryn Hunter, who is an Olivier Award-winning actress, accepted this part at such low pay. It would never happen in Japan. If I were asked about my occupation by a taxi driver in Japan, he would say, "My goodness! That sounds very difficult. It's hard to earn money, isn't it." An English taxi driver would likely say, "Oh! You've got a nice job!" There is such a huge gap between Japanese and English societies regarding the idea of theater.

What was it like when you first came to London's West End theater?

It was not easy, to tell the truth. The biggest problem was the language barrier. However, that dramatically dissolved this time, I believe. We used a script written in English, not a translated one, and I think that has contributed greatly to the success. "The Bee" is based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, but I and Colin Teevan rewrote it into native colloquial English, so there are no awkward English expressions.

Where are you at now in terms of your life's goals?

I am not a person to set any definite goal in my life. This is a very Asian tendency, if I can say so. For example, just recently there was a Kabuki production in London, and I have also directed Kabuki twice, so sometime I want to do more Kabuki because it offers a lot of opportunity to do something new. I am also thinking about doing more projects with English people stemming from my current work, but I am not setting any long-term ambition and I am happy to go with the flow. I believe the stream flows in the direction it should, and that things happen according to the laws of nature. I don't want to be thinking I must do this -- this is a Western way of thinking, I think. Anyway, I am now enjoying several different things, such as Kabuki, collaborating with English dramatists and my work with younger Japanese actors. I don't want to fix one final target at the moment. In other words, if I stayed in one particular place, like staying in London all the time, I would get bored and lose artistic stimulus.

How was it working with English actors?

I can't judge English actors in general from my two experiences, but they certainly like to discuss the text in detail. They spend so much time reading between the lines of text. As this is the country of Shakespeare, I expected that, but sometimes I wanted to say to them that it is not necessary to read so deeply.

What do you have to say to your fans in Japan, and fellow dramatists, who would prefer that you didn't spend so much time in London?

I don't think I am so loved by the Japanese drama world [laughs]. Anyway, I certainly want to do more with English dramatists in the future. I have got quite a good response from English audiences this time, so I definitely want to continue doing productions here.

Your next play will open in autumn in Japan. What is it about?

Currently, I am saying it's about puro-resu -- professional wrestling. I am personally not so interested in puro-resu, but on the other hand, I think it is a quite a peculiar and interesting world. Everybody knows it is a fixed show, a madeup entertainment, but people pretend to themselves that it is a real combat sport. That is interesting to me.

Do you have any plan to do a play on Broadway in the future?

No chance. My plays are not suitable for Broadway, I think. Of course if someone asked me, I'd think about it, but for the moment I have London anyway.

Do you have any special plan for when you stage "The Bee" in Japan next year?

The English version with an English cast will not be changed at all. But I am going to make another Japanese version with a Japanese cast, and it will be completely different.

* * * * *

The day after this interview, the curtain rose for the public premiere of "The Bee." Ninety minutes later, Noda stood in the spotlight on stage basking in waves of warm, enthusiastic applause. Indeed, at the reception after the show, behind a face filled with happiness and relief at the buzz surrounding "The Bee," Noda flashed a quick smile as he savored the revenge of the Red Demon.

"The Bee" will be staged in June and July 2007 at the Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo. Call Noda Map (03) 5423-5901.

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