On the Ethics of “Japonaiserie”

522288_467254523327057_376461280_n/ article by FellSwoop Theatre, published on Blog/Camp’13 for Festival/Tokyo

In November 2011, FellSwoop, the theatre company I am working with, were the first to present Toshiki Okada’s Five Days in March in the UK. Despite its tremendous success in Japan, Five Days in March needed thorough consideration when it came to presenting it to a foreign audience. Okada’s text makes several references to the so-called “love hotels”, “Hokuriku banks” and “Don Quixote’s bookstores”; familiar locations to Japanese audiences living in Tokyo, yet completely unknown to the British crowds we wanted to introduce this text to. Beyond the first alien references to where the play is set, we needed to find a form of staging by which our audience could feel “part-of” the world described by Okada: if the text had the potential to keep our audiences at bay in the first few minutes of the play, the chosen theatrical form had to try and draw them back in. The thread of the classic romantic comedy was chosen for this sole reason: the simplicity of its aesthetic constituted a familiar enough support so our audience could fix their attention on the text and what was at stake in the play.

Looking back on it, I notice the great implications of this cultural interpretational work. Although the text remained practically unchanged, the form told our audience about the content of Okada’s play and vice versa. What our audience might have perceived to be a coherent vision of what Japanese contemporary theatre culture might be like as a whole was a lure mixing different cultural influences; a “japonaiserie (a French term to designate an ornate style of Western art that employs Japanese motifs).

Any textual interpretation in theatre goes through the filter of the cultural background in which the play is performed: what I know, what I see in my everyday life, will undeniably shape the way I understand or stage the play I have decided to work on. An Italian staging of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House will differ from its Spanish counterpart. The director working on the play may well claim the contrary – “We remained extremely faithful to the original text” – but he will have put his cultural and individualistic stamp on the Norwegian playwright. The German-based theatre director Thomas Ostermeier’s spin on Hamlet at the London Barbican in 2011 was a great and jubilatory “shambles”: the distance between the two countries and their theatrical traditions allowed the German director to take greater freedom on the English “sacred” text. Although problematic to some Shakespearean purists, Ostermeier’s production lived on and did not present any particular ethical or emotional argument.

However, whenever theatre borrows from another traditional theatrical form, people’s stance is to denounce the cultural travesty the director has concocted. Ariane Mnouchkine faced this difficult cultural dilemma when she decided to make use of the Japanese Kabuki theatrical tradition to stage Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Festival d’Avignon in 1982. Mnouchkine was criticized for not fully understanding the implication of Japanese Kabuki theatre. Her theatre company being based in France, Mnouchkine’s act of borrowing from an Eastern culture was deemed irresponsible in the light of three hundred years of colonialism.

Thirty years later, such questions about cultural hegemony and the responsibility of the artist who borrows remain.

This year’s trend at Festival/Tokyo 2013 is to convoke external influences or stories in the hope of finding new ways to represent 3.11 on stage; this is the case with Shu Matsui’s play The Long Field Trip, and also for Akio Miyazawa and Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s two adaptations of Prolog?, both taking on the Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek’s text written directly after Fukushima disaster. In Matsui’s piece, Oedipus Rex is completely adapted and transposed from its cultural Greek origin; the characters in The Long Field Trip are no gods or heroes, just a troubled Japanese family trying to overcome a series of existential crises. The Long Field Trip and his original take on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex proves the important need for artists to be reinvigorated by outside cultures. Matsui uses the story of Oedipus and gives it a whole new meaning, helping him to deliver his own personal intended meaning to the piece he has created. The myth is altered and transformed to fit the particular contemporary context during which the piece is first performed, the troubled years following the explosion of the nuclear plant. What Matsui has found in this Western classic is the hope for catharsis, an emotional purge; and we ourselves leave the auditorium with a sense of feeling lighter than when we first entered.