F/T09 Spring

With much fanfare and advertising, Festival Tokyo arrived in north Tokyo! Replacing the old Tokyo International Arts Festival (with far superior funding to its predecessor), I was certainly very impressed by the publicity and the resources, most of which was bilingual. The main free pamphlet detailing all the productions could be picked up at every performance and was excellent.

The choice of venues was good and the facilities (including the bizarre dancing waiter cafe) were efficient. I don’t like the Owl Spot because it is awkwardly located inside a high-rise, but the theatre itself is nice.

The ticket system with its multi-performance passes was a good idea and great value for money. However, the reservation system, though online, was pretty complicated.

The satellite programming, though expanding the number and variety of works greatly, was actually rather pointless, as many of these productions were already going ahead and one could not use the F/T passes for them. No doubt there was some administrative and funding reason behind this but it ended up making the Festival structure more complicated than necessary.

The timing with TPAM was perhaps clement for foreign visitors but likely meant that people could not catch the satellite performances for that festival. TPAM organized several dozen dance, theatre and musical events, but the clash with F/T could only produce one winner.

I did worry about some of the programming, especially the esoteric Clouds. Home. Brave programming is of course to be applauded but I fear that it might alienate people who bought tickets. There was very little way of knowing what you were going to see (the copy in the brochures and leaflets was often lacking) and so many people would have seen advertising for the Festival and given it a try. Being confronted by such a dense, serious piece potentially puts off patrons from return visits. Most of the performances I attended had sold well but were not completely full. This was in spite of the massive marketing the Festival had dispatched.

There was a lot of dance and many of the plays tended towards the documentary, or at least a lot made use of video projection. German connections abounded, which is not such a bad thing, in Clouds. Home (from an original script by Elfriede Jelinek), Capital (Karl Marx, German company) and even Shu Matsui (Sample)’s Fireface (by Marius von Mayenburg).

I thought Voiceprints City was a well-staged, interesting piece of theatre, one that verged on the point of being Brechtian meta-theatre but still maintained the audience-performer division. The writer-director Masataka Matsuda’s personal musings about the war were featured in the ubiquitous video footage, including interviews with his father. The play did not seem to progress beyond this state of self-reflection, showing to us him writing things at his desk, a trip to Nagasaki, and then further enacted by the cast in front of us in a series of cyclic scenes. Though the movement between things was smooth and effective, such as use of a large ramp and a climax with a photocopier gushing out piles of Xerox, the drama did not develop and no cohesive narrative held it together.

I was disappointed by Transfer Student, especially given the writer Oriza Hirata’s pedigree. Though brilliantly performed by its cast of high school students and with a central Pirandello-like premise of an elderly lady turning up at class believing she has been enrolled, the play was a dull series of conversations between the actresses on the subjects of the short talks they had to give. The dialogue may have been believable, to the extent that it felt almost improvised, but listening to youngsters talking about national identity is rarely interesting in real life, let alone for two hours in a play. The director Norimizu Ameya managed a real coup, that of making the large theatre at the Metropolitan Art Space feel very intimate and exciting, by having the cast move freely between the stage and the auditorium, and even up to the balcony, playing scenes all around the seats. The house lights were also left on for much of the time. A traditional space became dynamic.

Unfortunately, once again, even this supposed experiment in realism had to resort to use of video projection. When this is employed as an integral part of the work, exploring themes or producing a theatrical effect, it can be wonderful. Complicite have done this expertly, with performers filming themselves, and the results visible on significant areas of the stage. This adds a layer of theatricality to the work. OM-2, a fringe company producing quite chilling theatre of cruelty, also used these techniques in a piece I recently saw. But when it is just a large screen at the back of the stage that abruptly bursts into life and shows interviews and monologues, then this just becomes a clunky linking device.

The other pieces I saw were Shunkin, Kokashita, Sankai Juku’s Kinkan Shonen, The Rainy Table and Love’s Whirlpool. I plan to write more about Potudo-ru’s play at a later stage, so I will leave it at that for now. In terms of the straight plays that I have seen in Japan it is perhaps the best or most satisfying.

I regret not seeing the Romeo Castellucci and the Capital production, since they were the major international contributions and apparently fantastic. I will be certain to see Castellucci’s La Divinia Commedia at the end of the year.

Overall, it reminded me a lot of London’s BITE festival, though the majority of productions were domestic and relatively small in scale. Having not seen the previous incarnation I cannot say if there was improvement.

Well, it came and went. But only until November, when it all starts again.

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