I have rarely seen a play in Japan that did not have superfluous characters.

To justify this with examples…

Mathematical Domino (Tomohiro Maekawa, Ikiume) had this random landlord character around two thirds of the way through. He kind of related some important information but this could easily have been written in via another device. Another actor for three or four lines.

Shu Matsui/Gekidan Sample’s Tsuka also had at least one essentially unnecessary character and Ai no uzu (Love’s Whirlpool, Daisuke Miura, Potudo-ru) had a whole scene that, while adding further dimensions and development to the atmosphere, could have been excised along with its two new characters (entering and exiting in that scene alone) without hindrance to the plot. (In fact both plays would have benefitted from being more streamlined.)

Unnecessary characters? The plays of Gekidan Sample. Photo: Tsukasa Aoki

Unnecessary characters? The plays of Gekidan Sample. Photo: Tsukasa Aoki

Why? Writer-directors form their own gekidan and they become their own editor/literary manager. They hire out the theatre; fans of their work guarantee them an audience. There is little process where there someone accepts, rejects and checks the script. The whole dramaturgical workshop system, for good or bad, does not seem to exist here. If you have your own gekidan you have carte blanche.

Further, since the economics are already pretty DIY in style, there is no external artistic director to say, ‘I love this play but I can’t afford to put on an eight-actor cast this season. Can you make it for less actors?’ Instead, they just work it out themselves (surviving on cup ramen for a few months and so on). However, this is contradictory, since a tight budget would surely make writers think realistically – make them write plays they are sure to be able to produce. It seems that creativity wins out over this.

Beyond the scope of a Japanese dramatist? Richard Bean's 'England People Very Nice'. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Beyond the scope of a Japanese dramatist? Richard Bean's 'England People Very Nice'. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Of course, I am not condemning epic and ambitious works with large casts and long stories. However, the above examples are essentially small-scale studio plays. No, the tendency of producing theatres in London to go for small-cast plays is a problem and one that is being addressed by playwrights like the so-called Monsterists. These writers, though they started small themselves, are now aiming big and trying to get plays with huge casts produced regularly.

They have succeeded to an extent. Richard Bean’s recent England People Very Nice caused controversy with its apparently ‘racist’ jokes. This overshadowed the significance of Bean’s ambitions, that he was trying to write a modern-day Ben Jonson play. That alone is worthy of attention, whatever the subject matter and tone.

One thinks of David Hare’s Racing Demon, or Hare and Howard Brenton’s Pravda. David Edgar’s plays, such as Destiny (to say nothing of Nicholas Nickleby). Certainly the Eighties saw many more grand and big plays. To be fair, though, these were mainly produced by appropriately big institutions like the RSC, the National – and these same theatres have continued to produce big ensemble new plays throughout the Nineties and into this century, as well as mirroring the Bush and Royal Court’s trend for smaller, hard-hitting plays. Though the National did Closer (1997) it also did Speer (2000). Though the RSC did A Russian in the Woods (2002) it also did Tantalus (2001).

Have the Monsterists exaggerated the dearth of big plays and the facilities for them? (Obviously, to criticize smaller theatres for not putting them on is very naïve. Is it only places like the National – and indeed surely it is their duty – to be the theatre for such large works?) For example, no one at the National Theatre had a problem finding the resources for Tony Harrison’s (derided) Fram or Michael Frayn’s Afterlife. And a few years prior to those there was Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, possibly the most ambitious play(s) staged in the last ten years.

The so-called Monsterists group of playwrights. Photo: Sarah Lee

The so-called Monsterists group of playwrights. Photo: Sarah Lee

Is the problem more the supply? All of the previous examples, though selective, no doubt, were by established playwrights. That is, for all their good intentions, no one is writing good, big plays? (Or big plays good enough?)

American dramatists seem to have no problem with big plays. August: Osage County by Tracey Letts was a solid Broadway and critical hit, and look at the scale and success of Angels in America (returning to Broadway next season). Americans can aim big (Tony Kushner) as well as small (David Mamet). Can contemporary British playwrights do the same?

Mark Ravenhill has swung both ways: he first achieved notice with his archetypal In-Yer-Face small hard-hitters (Shopping and Fucking) before moving on to literally bigger stages (Mother Clap’s Molly House). What about the Japanese? Well, even when taking a big stage (the New National Theatre, the Metropolitan Art Space), the dramatists do not come up with the appropriate goods. One major exception is Hisashi Inoue, who has carved out a whole oeuvre of gargantuan, untamed, unwieldy epics. Hideki Noda as well. But these are not the contemporary generation.

Likewise, to return to those examples I began with, though they have relatively large casts (defined as ten or over?) and are sometimes quite long, in spite of this they are essentially ‘small’ plays. And this is the reason why the excess sticks out and makes one want to amputate a character, a scene. Practical limitations in terms of budget can produce a mindset where your ideas are focused and intensified. Being your own boss allows you to self-indulge. Japanese playwrights need editors! They need artistic directors!


One response to “Extras

  1. Pingback: Shu Matsui, Sample: “Imitation” and “prototype” « Theatre Burger

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