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Friday, Dec. 7, 2012
Dramatist Ninagawa makes a play for peace
Special to The Japan Times
At the start of the year, Japanese dramatist Yukio Ninagawa called a press conference in Tel Aviv to announce a collaboration between the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater and Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater. He would direct a cast of Japanese, Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Israeli actors in "Trojan Women," the ancient Greek tragedy by Euripedes declaring, "I hope that, even indirectly, theater will be able to bring some hope to people in areas of conflict."
Then, even as Ninagawa began to audition Israeli actors there, human rights and anti-Zionist groups rallied to block this joint project — by two leading public theaters — on the grounds, they claimed, that it was wrong "to support Israeli cultural activity."
But of all the world's taxing issues, just what was it that drove Japan's 77-year-old dramatic force — famed in part for an astonishing and brutal play-a-month schedule — to thrust his theatrical iron into so obviously hot a fire? To delve deeper into what he expects from this endeavor, The Japan Times speaks to him in a rehearsal studio at Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater, his home base in the city of Saitama, prior to the production's Tokyo premiere.
We also meet Jewish-Israeli actress Rivka Michaeli and Arab-Israeli actress Khawla Debsy, who are with Ninagawa at the time. Although both women are stars at home, each had to make the bold decision to defy possible detractors when they took roles in Ninagawa's project — not as leads but instead in the emotionally charged chorus.
At rehearsal, the atmosphere is near-feverish with exclamations, explanations and exchanges being tossed around in four languages — Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic and (as a lingua franca) English. Then at one point, as this remarkable human melange forms into a marching circle of actresses, each ruing in their own tongue the cruel fate they've been dealt by being taken as prisoners from Troy to Greece, Ninagawa darts between them issuing (via simultaneous translation) precise instructions to each actress.
This time, Ninagawa has cast one of his favorite actresses, Kayoko Shiraishi, as Hecuba, the wife of King Priam of Troy during the 12th-century B.C. Trojan wars with Athens recorded for posterity in Homer's "The "Iliad." Opposite her, in a sense, is singer and actress Yoka Wao, a star graduate of the all-female Takarazuka theater revue company. She plays femme fatale Helen of Troy, whose elopement from Athens to Troy was the pretext for decades of war.
It is only as we retire from this artistic frenzy to the quiet of his workroom that the director starts to explain why he embarked on the project three years ago.
"In 1996, I received an offer to present the ancient Greek tragedy 'Medea' in Tel Aviv," he says. "I agreed, but on condition that we could also stage the play in the Gaza Strip. We went there and found a suitable venue, an open-air schoolyard, and United Nations forces were ready to provide floodlights and generators and such. But when we returned to Tel Aviv from our research trip, the Israeli government banned our performance in Gaza for so-called security reasons.
"So that was that, and we canceled the performance in Tel Aviv and instead staged it at Petra in Jordan."
The director says that experience has "gnawed away at him" ever since. Then, out of the blue in 2008, he received an invitation to work with the Cameri Theater.
"This time," he says, "I accepted on condition of doing the performance with both Jewish and Arab actors from Israel, together with Japanese ones."
When asked why, Ninagawa says: "I don't think theater has the direct influence or impact to change political conditions — but I am certain people from three incompatible cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages, can share artistic creativity together. This is probably a minor cultural exchange, but I don't think such things should be restricted by politics."
Yet behind the romance of this cross-cultural creative affair, the Japanese theater maestro confesses, "Actually, in our rehearsal room, each person tries to control their anger, instincts and arguments because everyone is trying to create a great production. Theater can only do little things at most, but I feel we need to do this."
According to a staff blog, however, in a scene where Trojan women are led back as slaves to Athens, an Arab actress said she fought with her emotions regarding the situation in Gaza, while a Jewish actress was consumed by thoughts of the Holocaust — and both fell into a deep quiet.
Nonetheless, Michaeli, a leading comedienne-actress and TV presenter in Israel, describes how, as she walked in that circle of Trojan captives, she "suddenly felt something very deep. I imagined the disaster of Troy and I could not stop crying. While I was walking in that circle, I started to feel like I was having healing treatment, and I think Ninagawa made me go to a deep part of my soul and my brain.
"As we've worked on this play, I have really understood how it's a tragedy and entirely a folly to continue the war in the Middle East today. It is not necessary."
For her part, the Arab-Israeli chorus member Debsy explains how she has been affected by working with Ninagawa.
"I've learned the significance of patience and tolerance," she says. "As we are working in three languages, actors sometimes have to wait for someone else to finish their lines and action, so it can take three times longer than a normal play. Consequently, you have to stop putting yourself first; you have to deny yourself in order to have a dialogue between cultures. It's essential to listen to the others, and for any Israeli that's not a particularly strong skill because normally ego goes to the fore. Here, though, I feel I have to push that ego back and defer to others."
Picking up on Debsy's comment, Varda Fish, the director of international relations at the Cameri Theater, says how shocked she was that Ninagawa cast Michaeli and Debsy in chorus roles. But she adds that she understands that in "Trojan Women" the chorus members are very significant, "and that Ninagawa wants to show the power that ordinary people have, not just politicians, kings or gods."
Michaeli concurs, "In this play, there is war for years, but then after the Greek soldiers return victorious, some die too poor to even have a proper burial — while the Trojan people lose everything. So, ordinary people on both sides paid the high price of war — a price that got higher the longer the war went on."
"In wars there are no winners, only losers," Debsy adds. "I don't know whether this project will go well or not, but this is my only way to say that we — Jews and Arabs — can work together and live together. Every day on TV, people see shocking images of killing and bombing and the conflict in Israel, but I want Japanese audiences to see all that in a different way through this play."
As one member of that TV audience, and the play's leading Japanese actress, Shiraishi commented in a recent interview, "There were small arguments between Jewish and Arab cast members at the beginning, but after they started doing acting workshops together and making physical contact with each other, then just as they exchanged body heat they gradually developed warm feelings together, too. I thought it was better to be close, even though they might argue, rather than keep their distance and ignore each other."
After this month's performance in Tokyo, Ninagawa will stage the same work with the same cast at the Cameri Theater. However, he says he still hopes to complete his mission in the Middle East.
"I have not given up my desire to stage it somewhere in the self-governing Palestinian territories one day, after the success of this upcoming run in Israel. So, even though this may be a remote possibility, I have kept to a very simple (stage) set this time, even though lavish visual ones are one of my trademarks. So this time we are ready to pack up and perform 'Trojan Women' any place at any time.
"Now, I would like to ask audiences in Tokyo and Tel Aviv to be patient and really try to watch and hear this trilingual performance anyway, because I believe they will finally get something from that experience — but if it's impossible to be patient, they can just leave (laughs)."
When asked what has been the key to pulling off this project, Ninagawa's answer is simple and clear: "The only way is to talk honestly and earnestly to people and reveal myself openly from my heart. Otherwise, I would never have been able to be part of this multinational creative team.
"People normally think a director chooses the (cast and crew), but actually it's the director who is judged and selected by the others. If the cast, crew and director aren't in tune, then they won't support you and the work will suffer."
"Trojan Women" runs Dec. 11-20 at the Playhouse at Tokyo Metropolitan Theater in Toshima-ku. Japanese surtitles will be provided as required. The production will be staged in Tel Aviv from Dec. 29 to Jan. 5. For more information, call the theater at (03) 5391-3010 or visit www.geigeki.jp.