Ian Herbert[1]
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Not long ago I was at the Barbican Centre in London, watching a performance in Japanese of Shun-Kin, an adaptation by the Englishman Simon McBurney of stories by the Japanese Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. It was enthusiastically received by a largely Japanese audience.

We can see history working here, in a number of ways. First, the enormous growth of air travel made it easy for me to be in Japan ten days later, among many Western visitors, less than two centuries after Japan was first opened to the West. Second, Japanese literature, rather more than Japanese theatre and music, is now much appreciated and common reading in Europe – Japanese manga comics perhaps even more so. Third, East-West social, cultural and economic movement is now in both directions, to the extent that cities such as London boast significant numbers of Japanese, Chinese and Korean residents living alongside the many people from the Indian subcontinent who have already made their homes there. Finally, London now has, in the Barbican Centre and its BITE programme, a recognisable focus for world theatre, where performances from many countries are made available to confound the insular, Shakespeare-centred British mentality and its limited ideas of what theatre should really be.

What does all this mean for Asian theatre? In this brief survey I would like to suggest that East and West will always be some way apart in their perceptions of what theatre means and does, and that attempts on both sides to bring the various theatre traditions together have not always been successful.

The reasons for this are not hard to find. Indian, Chinese and Japanese theatre traditions, to name but a few, are strong: they have been developed and refined over many centuries and have roots deep in the national psyche and ritual sense of their respective peoples. When that theatre comes to the West – or even when Indian theatre comes to Japan, and vice versa – it brings with it a whole history and indeed belief system which is not that of the country it is visiting. Parts of the production which have special meaning or historic significance for a local audience will have no such resonance in another country. Actions which have a deep dramatic truth in their own theatrical milieu may seem merely odd or even irrational to those unfamiliar with the theatrical language they use, even before we face the challenge of the work being presented in a spoken language which is not our own.

In spite of this, most of the work I shall mention here consists of attempts by Western directors and writers to come to terms with Eastern stories and traditions, and Eastern directors and writers seeking to interpret Western drama for their own audiences and even for audiences in the West. Many have had considerable success, but we can wonder how much of this success is related to curiosity value, and how deeply the respective theatre traditions have really been able to assimilate one another.

Western theatre of recent decades, for instance, has seen several attempts, many of them highly regarded, to tackle Asian themes. A prime example is Peter Brook’s 1985 Mahabharata, subsequently filmed in 1989. This landmark production thrilled audiences form Avignon to Adelaide, and only cynics would suggest that much of its effect came from the bonding effect that a nine-hour production can have on any audience.

The only dissenting voices in the chorus of praise for this work came from Indian critics, notably Gautam Dasgupta, who resented the travesty Brook and his adapter, Jean-Claude Carrière, had made of Hinduism’s most sacred book. I don’t know whether Gautam was any happier with the subsequent Indian soap opera based on the same work, but I think we can be reasonably sure that the mass of the Indian TV audience who watched that version, however clichéd, would have found it closer to what they had imbibed at their mother’s breast. Brook’s viewpoint must inevitably be a Western one, and even the carefully researched theatrical excursions to the East of Ariane Mnouchkine, who was educated in Brighton, may be seen as ill-informed attempts at Orientalism by people living in the countries such as Cambodia that she portrays.

A more recent, much-lauded attempt to Westernise an Eastern classic was Damon Albarn’s 2008 version of Monkey, which must surely have seemed pretty thin stuff to a Chinese audience in comparison with its portrayals in Beijing opera form, one of which thrilled London a couple of decades ago. And I suspect that the 1980 TV series Monkey Magic gave a great deal more pleasure than either to the ordinary Japanese audience for whom it was first intended (and the British audience who loved its mix of slapstick comedy and kung-fu). I’m not sure whether it was ever seen in China itself.

More successful are the attempts of Westerners such as Robert Lepage to convey some of the spirit of modern China without digging too deeply into its theatrical language. Lepage’s great Dragons Trilogy in part portrays the Chinese community in Montreal, while in its sequel The Blue Dragon he visits China itself. The views of a theatrical tourist, recording what he sees, are more convincing because he is less ambitious, or simply not arrogant enough to present them as genuine Chinese thought, or Japanese thought in the case of Seven Streams of the River Ota. A recent attempt by the British director, Michael Walling, to work with a multi-national cast including Chinese actors from the Shanghai Opera in a series of works under the title Orientations, produced an awkward melange of styles in which Lepage-like imagery failed to blend with the less fluid conventions of Chinese opera.

Indian theatre has fared better in the sense that Britain has a long-standing population from the subcontinent, ready to watch its traditional and modern theatre whether locally produced or touring from its original source. Jatinder Verma with his Tara company has brought Indian classics to a modern audience, while the Tamasha company has brought the flavour of Bollywood to the stage with great success in productions such as Moti Roti.

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In the other direction, I have had the pleasure over many years of seeing the London visits of many Eastern companies, offering traditional and modern work, and very often mixtures of the two. To make an enormous generalisation, I would suggest that work firmly founded in Asian countries’ own theatrical tradition has been more effective than attempts at hybridisation. From India, for instance, I still have strong memories of the visit more than thirty years ago of the Pune Theatre Academy with Ghashiram Kotwal, a new play at the time but one using the elements of traditional Marathi theatre to tell a still controversial story. More recently, a Kathakali King Lear excited some interest in London and Edinburgh, but turned out to be the work of a well-meaning American visiting director with only a superficial knowledge of the Kathakali tradition. Far more successful have been the occasional visits of true Kathakali companies, one of which is on an extended tour of the UK as I speak.

For some countries, the broad British public’s only knowledge of their theatre comes from a very commercial area. The regular visits of the Ladyboys of Bangkok, for instance, have earned them a large following, just as the Takarazuka revue from Japan was rapturously received on its London visit. I have fond memories, too, of the 1991 visit of a Japanese production of – of all things – Jesus Christ Superstar. But where we know little of the rest of Thai theatre, we have been exposed to Japanese theatre in many forms, from the visits of traditional Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku companies to the work of contemporary playwrights such as Hideki Noda.

Between these extremes is the work of Yukio Ninagawa, who has been a regular visitor to Britain since he first burst on to the scene at the Edinburgh Festival of 1985 with what he carefully entitled Ninagawa Macbeth. This and his subsequent version of The Tempest stunned the English critics, as did his open-airMedea at about the same time, in the Old Courtyard of Edinburgh University, which climaxed with Medea and her children disappearing ex machina on an enormous crane.

At the time, we knew little of Japanese traditional theatre – and I would confess that I remain ignorant of its niceties – so that we easily described Macbeth as ‘Kabuki’ and Tempest as ‘Noh’, descriptions which would horrify more purist Japanese critics. But it is Ninagawa’s use of Orientalism which has endeared him to British audiences and critics alike: his recent ‘super-kabuki’ Twelfth Night and ‘samurai’ Titus Andronicus have been much praised, and the rose petals and red ribbons which have become his trademark never tire us. It is when he steps aside from almost touristic evocations of Japanese theatre practice that he has been less successful. All his work in English that I have seen, from the modern Japanese Tango at the End of Winter with Alan Rickman in 1991 to the video-arcade Peer Gynt with Michael Sheen and the ill-fated King Lear with Nigel Hawthorne, has been pretty disastrous.

Hideki Noda has struck up a productive relationship with the Irish writer Colin Teevan, which has produced English versions of The Bee and The Red Demon. I did not see the Bee, which was quite well received (and has been well documented by my friend Manabu Noda), but for me the Young Vic production in English of The Red Demon, with Hideki Noda himself leading a group of established English actors, proved almost unintelligible.

One last Japanese recollection: almost my favourite experience of Japanese theatre in London wasKanadehon Hamlet, which the Kiyama Company brought to the Battersea Arts Centre in 2001. I was almost the only Englishman in the predominantly Japanese audience, and certainly the only critic to review it: I loved its humour, and the energy which fuelled its historical account of one of the first attempts to bring Shakespeare to Japanese audiences in 1897.

The Chinese theatre which has visited London has been almost entirely traditional, or traditionally influenced as in the case of Tan Dun’s Peony Pavilion. The country’s amazing circus companies remain firm favourites with the general public of the British Isles. Back in 1987, the Shanghai Opera Kunju Troupe’s Kunju Macbeth was a great hit in Edinburgh, but less well attended in London, where it lost a great deal of money for its promoter, my friend Richard Gough.

My own experience of Chinese theatre since then is limited to a couple of productions in Beijing of Western classics, about which I’d prefer not to comment, and Richard Schechner’s highly perverse interpretation of Hamlet, in which he directed some very talented students from the Shanghai Academy in a production which suggested that the great man himself had no idea of what Hamlet was about. The one recent all-Chinese contemporary production I saw, Two Dogs Look at Life, was a refreshing corrective – a highly entertaining and irreverent series of sketches lampooning a number of local personalities and issues.

Those Chinese versions of Western classics suffered from a lack of awareness of the development of Western theatre since Brecht, even Stanislavski. A similar datedness is present in much of the Iranian theatre I have seen, in two very intensive visits to that country’s remarkable Fajr festival. True, there is an Iranian avant-garde, using the high-tech video weaponry of contemporary European theatre to great effect, but it is overwhelmed in numbers by conventional productions of both Iranian and Western works, which show great inventiveness in overcoming the restrictions placed on any theatrical performance by Iran’s religious authorities, but less ingenuity in sheer dramatic presentation.

Finally, Korea is again for me a country of contrasts, where traditional and contemporary traditions and techniques mingle, often uneasily. Korea has in recent years made quite an aggressive assault on European theatres, with troupes of eager student drummer-actors popping up in many an Edinburgh basement on the Fringe. At a commercial level, such concoctions as Cooking and Jump! have made successful use of the traditional Korean strengths of drumming and stage acrobatics, and we can see this strength in more classical productions which have won great praise in Europe, such as Do-Wan Im’s remarkable Woyzeck, where the stars of the show are the chairs that are constantly rearranged by his Sadari Movement Laboratory. Oh-Tae Suk has also been much admired for his Romeo and Juliet, as has Jung-Ung Yang for his Midsummer Night’s Dream, both of which for me, delightful though they were, allowed their Korean-ness to swamp and at the same time over-simplify Shakespeare’s more complicated world view.

In concentrating on those areas where Asian theatres have allied themselves to European models I have not given due credit to the many exciting and truly indigenous productions I have seen on visits to Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong, to name but a few. Here, too there is the risk that the European spectator will not bring enough experience of the setting of an Asian production to appreciate it to the full, and vice versa, but I am of the belief that the truly local performance is more likely to have a universal appeal than the generalised or synthetic view that hybrid productions too often present. Aeschylus and Shakespeare can still speak to us directly in their own terms, as can Shudraka and Chikamatsu.

Perhaps the most fruitful field for intercultural exchange today is that of film, rather than theatre. Iranian cinema is one of the most influential of all, and in London, where there are regular seasons of both Japanese and Korean film, the latest Thai success, the Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is eagerly awaited. At least Britain continues in its efforts to learn from the East: the 2011 Edinburgh Festival features the National Ballet of China in Peony Pavilion, the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe in their version of Hamlet, The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Vietnamese choreographer Ea Sola with Drought and Rain.


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[1] Ian Herbert is now consultant editor of Theatre Record, which he edited and published from 1981-2003. He edited the technical journal Sightline, 1984-91. He writes regularly for theatre journals worldwide, including a fortnightly column in The Stage newspaper. President from 2001-2008 of the International Association of Theatre Critics, he is now an Honorary President. A board member of the Europe Theatre Prize, he is also past Chairman of the Society for Theatre Research in London and a trustee of the Critics’ Circle. He is a visiting professor of three US universities and has lectured in many countries of the world.

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A Westerner Looks East