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Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006


Filtering Shakespeare with noh

Special to The Japan Times

Despite the variety of attempts, few productions of Shakespeare succeed in bringing new insight to the playwright's works. In May 2004, though, when director Yoshihiro Kurita presented "Macbeth" in a traditional noh theatrical style at the Ryutopia Theater in Niigata, audiences and critics alike were thunderstruck by the harmony he created between his source material and the mysterious noh art form. Since that debut, 49-year-old Kurita has received acclaim for noh versions of "King Lear" and "The Winter's Tale," as well as for his contemporary productions.

News photo
Director Yoshihiro Kurita (below) became famous for his noh productions of Shakespeare plays such as "Winter's Tale". He is now staging "Othello." COURTESY OF RYUTOPIA
News photo

Kurita is currently preparing for a noh-style production of "Othello" to be staged in Niigata and Tokyo this month, and plans to do "Hamlet" next. He recently talked to The Japan Times about his life in the theater, his approaches to directing and his recent international successes.

Tell me about the Craiova Shakespeare Festival held in Romania in April 2006.

"The Winter's Tale" we did there was completely different from the one in Japan. I changed the directing to suit a proscenium setting, and to create a noh-style space we put 12 paper lanterns in a big circle on the floor and had the actors mostly act inside that. As well, I positioned human pillars at the corners to give an imaginative representation of a noh stage.

When the play finished, there was a standing ovation and shouts of "Bravo." I had not expected that. Then at the closing party, producers from England, Germany, Israel and Holland asked us to perform in their countries.

Why did they like the play so much?

They all said they loved the formalized Shakespeare. It made them see that Shakespeare is not "realist" theater as most European dramatists understand it. They had forgotten that point, and many Shakespeare plays nowadays fail because the actors are just declaiming long plots in a quasi-realist style. They said they liked the way we formalized the play in one tone and filtered out unnecessary elements to make it simpler.

Why did you start this noh Shakespeare series ?

At first I had no plan for a noh-style series, I just wanted to do a regular "Macbeth." But Ryutopia's modern-style theater was occupied, so it was by accident that we did it in the noh theater. If I had been able to use the contemporary theater, this hit series would never have happened actually.

How did you approach the challenge of presenting Shakespeare in a noh context?

As Shakespeare is such an English classic, when we Japanese actors try to perform it from our very different cultural background, it just doesn't fit naturally and easily becomes nonsense. So I try to create an original work that takes advantage of Japanese aesthetics and makes the best use of Japanese actors' way of moving.

So first, I read the play and reconstruct it in my head in the formalized, stylized noh form rather than as a normal contemporary drama. I usually try about 10 different possible styles for each scene. In the end, I pick one of them, but I definitely need the other nine, and sometimes we try 20 or 30 useless ideas on the way to selecting and polishing the best one. It takes a lot of time.

How do you retain the significance of Shakespeare's words in the context of noh, which doesn't have much dialogue?

Recently, a foreign critic described our stage as "filtrated Shakespeare." I thought that was a suitable expression. To create a beautiful stage, we scrape the surplus off the original to reveal a minimal, simple noh-style production. We express his world with actors' bodies and their few words on the empty stage, and this helps to feed the audience's imagination.

You have cast Jun Uemoto as Iago in your new production of "Othello." How are you developing this central role together?

Sometimes, actors playing Iago just show off their acting ability, and that makes "Othello" fail overall. One day, I told him not to act too much, I wanted him, not Iago, on my stage -- by that I meant that Iago is not the rascal and petty villain he is often portrayed as, but a clever and cunning monster. I asked him to do Iago as a man who looks honest and loyal but is actually a very ominous person. If the Iago actor makes his maliciousness obvious, Iago just looks like a boring chancer.

What's your approach to directing?

I control actors' movements strictly and tell them how and where to move down to the last centimeter. Of course I also discuss the process of defining their final movements, as they have to understand from their heart the reason for the movements.

How did you come to be in the world of theater?

My grandmother was a teacher of classical Japanese dance, Nihon buyo. I attended her classes from the age of 10. Then, from the age of 21, and on and off for the next 20 years, I studied Nihon buyo under the famed actress and dancer Murasaki Fujima. Because of that I met her partner, the kabuki actor Ennosuke Ichikawa, who brought spectacular effects to kabuki and created the genre now known as "super kabuki."

Working sometimes as his assistant, I was very much influenced by him to combine the traditional arts and modern arts in the same play. He created a new form of kabuki by breaking the barriers around existing, orthodox kabuki, and as I watched him at work I would imagine my own ideas of staging. So I learned theater directing without really noticing.

"Othello" runs Aug. 22-26 at the Ryutopia Noh Theater in Niigata, a 7-min. drive from JR Niigata Station, and Aug. 28-31 at the Umewaka Nohgaku Gakuinkaikan in Tokyo, an 8-min. walk from JR Higashi Nakano Station. For more information, call (025) 224-7000 or visit www.ryutopia.or.jp

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