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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008

A linguistic boxing match from a true classic

Special to The Japan Times

Internationally acclaimed English theater director David Leveaux first visited Japan 20 years ago as the substitute director of "Dangerous Liaisons" after an English colleague had to pull out. Now Leveaux, 50, is back in his second home after a bewildering series of trips from his London base to Vienna, New York, Dublin and Spain.

 David Leveaux
At home in Japan: Director David Leveaux SIS COMPANY PHOTO

When he first came to Japan, the director says he didn't know anything about the country. That chance encounter was to be the first of many as, in 1993, Leveaux co-founded the Theatre Project Tokyo (tpt) with Japanese producer Hitoshi Kadoi, and remained its artistic director for the next 13 years.

Since leaving tpt in 2006, Leveaux has been extremely active on the international drama scene, driven by a curiosity to work in different countries and under different circumstances.

After a short break from the Japanese theater world, he has returned to direct Henrik Ibsen's 1879 masterpiece "A Doll's House" with a Japanese cast.

"A Doll's House" has been described as the first feminist play. Is that how you see it?

Inside the play it's not so static that you could just say "It's a feminist play." It portrays complex relationships that are shifting all the time.

The central character, Nora, is many things, and it's almost as if she's rehearsing ways of relating both to her husband and others. It's also very powerful on a psychological level, because she's like a diamond that is turning rapidly and changing all the time. Probably that's because she herself is trying to understand who she is, so she's very complicated, like a mosaic.

Although the play is 100 years old, I was very impressed how contemporary some of the characters' arguments are, as at its core it's about a struggle between a woman and a man over their marriage.

I've heard you are taking a fresh approach to the play.

We are not doing it in a heavy naturalistic, realistic design. We do it on a platform, with the audience all around. This puts a very strong focus on the relationships between the actors, including the whole issue of how sexual relationships are negotiated. So it's great to present it almost like a boxing match with a man and a woman in a tremendous, shifting struggle for their marriage, which famously ends when she leaves — a big surprise when the play was first done.

Has the position of women in society improved since the play was written?

Of course there have been huge advances socially and legally, but I don't know whether we've freed ourselves yet, either men or women, because the way women are regarded in our society is a distortion. This also distorts men, because they don't know how to relate.

Also, with many women now working, as a consequence, there's been a reaction in some areas, with men panicking and reverting to an old-fashioned attitude. It's still in a state of struggle. That's why it's worth putting this play on.

Is there anything that relates especially to current-day Japan?

Particularly in Japan, the ideal image of women is more childlike, and there are such images in the subway and everywhere. That's exactly how this girl is treated by her husband. He uses the word kawaii (cute) a lot, but he doesn't know how to relate to her as an adult. This is something very recognizable to many Japanese people, especially to women. So, from kawaii to utsukushii (beautiful), from just being cute to being empowered in the end, it's a big journey.

Ever since I first came to Japan, one of the themes that's interested me has been the place of women in this society, both psychologically and economically. This is something for us to explore in the theater because of course it's a big question, and it's fundamental to the health of a society.

In Japan, it's interesting how many things are now run by women. There are very powerful women here, and that fact is undeclared. Although on the surface, it's more patriarchal, women are driving many things. So, this balance is interesting because it tends to be men who like to be consistent and fixed, and women seem more comfortable with change.

How are rehearsals going?

I worked with Shinichi Tutsumi 20 years ago, so it's very nice to be working with him again, and I have great respect for his commitment to working in live theater. There is an immediate understanding with him.

Regarding Rie Miyazawa, though I've seen her on stage, we've never worked together. It's very interesting, because she is intelligent and unusual. She is elusive, because she has many different sides, like a diamond — that's why she is a great Nora.

What do you see as the purpose of theater?

We are able to bring to the surface realities about the way we live, because theater is a way of making something invisible become visible. So, our responsibility is to make recognizable the world we are in: Here's the struggle, here's the conflict, here's the argument; it's funny, it's sad, it's ridiculous, it's tragic, but that's the way we are.

Now how do we go on? For instance, in Japan, the young people's way of talking is changing a lot. So theater is the place to rediscover the possibility of language. And in the end, what a language can do is the measure of culture. Lazy people think nationalism is the way to protect culture, but it's not, it's the way to destroy it. Take care of language and don't be afraid of change, this is very important.

"A Doll's House" runs Sept. 5-30 at Shibuya's Theatre Cocoon. For more information, call (03) 5423-5906 or visit www.siscompany.com

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