Part 1: 2008-2009
Recently I have been fascinated by the reaction of the British press – and public – to a number of Japanese or Japanese-related theatre productions in London.
It kind of begins in the summer of 2008, by coincidence when I was in the capital for the first time in several years.
That summer saw the premiere of The Diver by Hideki Noda. Noda is one of the few Japanese dramatists to have consistently staged work in London. In part this is due to his status in Japan but also due to his own English ability, and a long collaboration with Irish playwright Colin Teevan (who has made most of his career out of adaptations).
His early attempts were not a raging success. The Independent wrote of Red Demon (Young Vic, 2003) that they were “a tad disappointed. This physical theatre piece seems problematically unsophisticated in several respects…Mime work…looks basic and dated…It’s just such a shame Noda spells out his sociopolitical lessons so obviously.”
Subsequent productions of The Bee (Soho Theatre, 2006) and The Diver (Soho Theatre, 2008) met with more consistent approval, in particular for their striking designs and the circus-like physical elements of the plays. The gender-bending has been applauded but thankfully no easy parallels with kabuki were drawn. However, one reoccurring misgiving has been that style seems to take precedence over content, that ultimately Noda’s tales don’t amount to enough.
Complicite stunned the UK and the US with The Elephant Vanishes (2003-2004). In many ways it was a typical Complicite production; multi-media combined elegantly, almost elegiac, with the physical. But when Shunkin was at the Barbican in January and February 2009 it had an oddly muted reception. The audiences loved it but the critics struggled to express their lack of warmth. What was the problem?
“Rarely have the usually sure-fire dramatic ingredients of sex and violence seemed so dull,” lamented Charles Spencer in the Telegraph. “Despite its gorgeous telling, it fails to convince,” said Andrew Haydon in Time Out. “Everything seems to be lost in translation,” judged Fiona Mountford for the Evening Standard.
Sex in Japan is wholly different to the west. Sex is different. Pornography is different. The objectivisation of women and sex is, yes, different. But though the source material and cast were true-blood Japanese this was Simon McBurney’s production through and through. “There are clearly cultural differences operating here, because what the Japanese admire as devotion and passion, we would probably call domestic violence and send for the social services,” quipped Lyn Gardner in the Guardian. I’m very much not a Tanizaki scholar, but I believe the relationship between Shunkin and Sasuke is not intended to be “admired”; merely, Tanizaki was fascinated by what we humans do in the name of the erotic. Ai no chijin (Naomi) also portrays a dislikeable but fascinating destructive relationship. And if we are making cross-cultural comparisons, one only needs to look at Lolita to find, in a novel very much about Europe and America written by a Russian, an apt example of how these sadomasochistic relationships are universal.
As always, the critics seemed determined to demonstrate their worldliness and knowledge of other cultures. “There’s a touch of noh and kabuki…with lots of stylized gesture, mime and the use of puppets” (Spencer again). The techniques in Shunkin were similar to those used by Complicite and other companies. They are the hallmarks of modern physical theatre, not (only) of Japanese traditional drama.
I suspect the glum reviews that greeted the recent Donmar Warehouse production of Madame de Sade by Yukio Mishima were generated as much by dislike of the play, as much as disappointment that Michael Grandage’s West End season had apparently lost its winning streak. “An example of the Higher Tosh,” said Michael Billington in the Guardian. People found the visuals stunning but the play boring. “Pure theatrical torture,” said Charles Spencer (whose review would earn him a vitriolic letter from Dame Judi Dench)
No doubt London audiences are thinking the Japanese are obsessed with sadomasochism (perhaps that would not be far from the truth), given the themes of these two productions so close together. Of course, this is also not really a “Japanese” play in the fullest sense of the word. Mishima was very much not a typical Japanese person (whatever that means), and his style here is (apparently) imitative of Racine and the subject is, as the title tells you, a certain famous Frenchman’s wife (amongst other women).
Here at least there wasn’t any disparity between the critics and the “lay” people: “Oh dear,” began the West End Whingers’ amusing review, before they tore it apart. (“It is strictly for masochists only.”)
The Guardian’s rather up-and-down “theatre blog” waded in too, resulting in a wealth of comments criticizing the “article” (what are the pieces on that theatre blog?), defending the Donmar’s season and its stars. A lot of user comments did attack the play and its translation, however. I also put my five cents into the ring as well (sorry, that’s a mixed metaphor), and tried to clear up some misconceptions about that “Japaneseness” of the production and all the British-people-can’t-engage-with-the-text argument. No doubt I was very successful.