Mephisto For Ever
Freely adapted from a novel by Klaus Mann, this play by Tom Lanoye tells the tale of a prominent theatre actor who is gradually drawn into the machinations of Nazi Germany and ends up a puppet of the regime. Mann based his book on the real-life story of Gustaf Gründgens, famous for his interpretation of the role of Mephistopheles in Faust. The novel was previously made into a superb 1981 film by István Szabó with a singular performance by Klaus Maria Brandauer in the lead.
It is a now archetypal story of art and politics, ambition and corruption, and one wonders if yet another version is needed. With such heritage, how do you make any new rendition of the familiar both fresh and relevant? This may be especially difficult when transposing it through the process of translation and staging in another country — or conversely, it may prove surprisingly easy, since audiences may not be acquainted with the source.
Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC) translated Lanoye’s play into Japanese and staged it for local consumption in April 2015, though its revival as part of TPAM 2016 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre meant that the audience was full of international theatre professionals as well.
The gamble almost pays off. Satoshi Miyagi’s directing is full of its usual bravado and inventive bustle. We sit on the stage of the main auditorium at KAAT, watching the characters act out scenes from the plays-within-the-play (at times it can feel like Spot the Classics as the “actors” rehearse and jump between Shakespeare, Chekhov and various German staples). The action is not just resigned to the stage but takes in the empty stalls, boxes and wings. The onstage musicians provide a soundtrack for the rehearsing “actors” but of course also for the performance overall (as well as playing a host of walk-on roles).
However, there are issues. One is length. This play is long, very long. That in itself need not be a bad thing, but balance and pacing certainly are. Although shorter (by 75 minutes to 90 minutes), the second act felt turgid compared to the reasonably tight first half, which could have been the whole play in its own right. The narrative and staging crescendoed to ever greater levels of melodrama and bombast. Much of what transpired in the second half was didactic and redundant; even if you were not versed with the story already you could have predicted much of the plot, and it wearies the viewer to sit through operatic cycles of executions and speeches, gunshots and reunions, confrontations and yet more speeches. Perhaps the problem was that it was attempting to be simultaneously cinematic and theatrical.
The TPAM performances also had English surtitles (translated from the Japanese version, it seems), though these were of varying quality (possibly due to editing or truncation after the fact). Beside the typographical and other errors, the vernacular lurched awkwardly (“My bad” is a nice phrase but not appropriate for a character speaking in the 1930s) and the display was also distractingly ill-timed: surtitles were left displaying long after the dialogue had been said in spite of the silence on stage, and lines always appeared in pairs even when the second line was much more staggered than the first.
SPAC’s publicity blurb in English also claimed that Lanoye’s is “up and coming”. He is 57 and an established writer in Europe. This may seem like nitpicking — and it is — but it is also a fairly typical example of the lazy PR and misinformation peddled to local audiences by theatres in Japan.
The way of storytelling, the way of singing
This was the most arrogant performance I have ever had the misfortune to watch, though one that was mercifully brief, of which more to come.
Director Hansol Yoon (Greenpig) ostensibly set out to showcase pansori, a form of traditional Korean oral storytelling, in a way accessible for contemporary audiences, and presumably non-Korean ones too. However, all he ended up doing was alienating them. Before entering the small studio at KAAT everyone was handed a bilingual A4 sheet warning that any noise from a mobile phone would result in the immediate termination of the performance. Somewhat perturbed, the audience was certainly not made to feel any less at home after they had ventured into the auditorium. There they saw a strip of artificial grass and row of floor cushions, and behind these a 10-metre wall filled with a single message written in giant letters in English and Japanese: “If a cellphone rings or buzzes during the show, the show will end immediately.”
The performers eventually deigned to enter — only after the wall text had been “flashed” by the lighting to remind us one last time — and knelt around a metre from the front row of the audience. Dressed incongruously in Adidas sportswear, they then began to take turns to repeat certain phrases in different pansori styles. Unfortunately, the content was almost impossible to follow since it was so isolated and at any rate the glare from the full auditorium lighting obscured half of the projected surtitles.
After only a few minutes one of the performers suddenly stood up and left. The others soon followed. This did not seemed planned and we speculated if a dastardly phone had made a minor beep. At length the performers came back, whether cajoled or otherwise it was not clear. Another 10 minutes of slow pansori fragments ensued, only for the same performer to stand up abruptly and exit. He had not been “performing” at the time but something had offended him. The others watched him leave and then obediently retired as well.
Panic followed. We could hear the theatre staff in the lobby discussing what to do; despite the warnings, there seemed no protocol for how to handle a performance termination. Timidly two KAAT staff emerged from the door and announced that a phone had made a small noise and that the performance was now over. It had lasted around 30 minutes, well over an hour short of what it was scheduled to run.
This being TPAM, most of the audience was a professional of some capacity and thus on a comp or reduced ticket, but even so, apparently no refunds were offered. If this wasn’t showing disdain for your audience, then I don’t what is.
Finally, heading from the palatial comfort of KAAT to the tiny studio that is ST Spot near Yokohama Station, I caught End, Takuya Murakawa’s highly divisive new piece. Murakawa was here continuing his investigation of the theme of modern communication that he also explored in Zeitgeber and Words.
Two female dancers interact through synchronised movements, embraces and violence. The short work contrasted elegant dance and classical music with physical abuse between the pair. It starts with a series of slaps, all self-imposed, and later escalates to one of the dancers kicking the other in the stomach, leaving visible bruising. In the seriously intimate ST Spot (as in sitting-on-your-neighbour’s-feet intimate), this was doubly painful to watch, and the fact that it was directed by a man also made it uncomfortable on another level. Apparently at one performance a friend or relative of the dancer being mistreated started to cry, so affected was she by what she was seeing and also, no doubt like many, truly unsure how much was staged to look painful and how much was actually hurting the performer.
The brutality ends on a note of hope, however, as the dancers, exhausted and facing off each other across the space, slowly taking a step towards each other as the lights quickly dim.
There is only one problem with this interpretation of the work. It is completely at odds with the text in the programme, which would almost seem to be from another piece altogether. According to this, the dancers were restaging a number of performances from their previous collaborations in an attempt to confront the “physical transformation” of time, making them inevitably “conscious of their deteriorating stamina and ability to move”. In short, it was “an opportunity for them to say goodbye to their own dancers from the past”. Where the violence played a part in Murakawa’s interest in the theme of time was a mystery.
Issues of subjective interpretations aside, End packs a punch — literally so for the performers — and was by far the most interesting of the three works I saw at TPAM 2016, but also still felt underdeveloped, like the results of a creative workshop for a work-in-progress. Perhaps, we can hope, Murakawa expands his ideas into something fuller in the future.