Int'l theater collaboration brings new Japanese plays to London stage
LONDON (Kyodo) -- Plays by three women from Japan were performed in London in January in an initiative to introduce overseas audiences to some of the country's best up-and-coming dramatists.
While Japan may be better known to foreign theatergoers for its kabuki dramas than its contemporary plays, the British and Japanese theater companies behind the initiative hoped to nurture the talent of 14 young Japanese playwrights, with each writer having their work translated into English for potential performance on the London stage.
In the first fruit of the collaboration between the Royal Court Theatre and New National Theatre Tokyo, the translated plays by three of these writers -- Saori Chiba, Shoko Matsumura and Tomoko Kotaka -- were performed on three consecutive nights in late January.
During the performances, actors read their lines after only a few days of rehearsals in the "script-in-hand" format. On one night, all three were shown together, and on another, two were shown.
The brevity of the plays' runs, however, was in stark contrast to the time it has taken to get the "New Plays: Japan" series up and running.
The initiative was launched in 2017, and the plays by each of the 14 playwrights were written between 2019 and 2021. But the COVID-19 pandemic brought delays while getting them to the stage also faced the challenge of an intense translation process that saw scripts go through numerous drafts.
While it is hoped that each play will strike a chord with overseas audiences, their subject matter is diverse.
Chiba's "Onigorou Valley" is a supernatural folk horror set seven years after the March 11, 2011 Fukushima triple disaster and deals with the lasting consequences of its aftermath. It was translated by Susan Momoko Hingley, who also performed in the play.
"28 hours 01 minute," written by Matsumura (translated by Sayuri Suzuki) depicts a woman expecting her first child and the strange sequence of events that unfold on the night that her neighbor visits with a gift of tangerines.
Kotaka's "Not Yet Midnight" (also translated by Suzuki) shows how a nighttime power outage opens up moments of pause across one bustling city for disparate groups of people -- from a couple on the verge of breaking up to three employees who have their hands in the company till.
Chiba's depiction of two nuclear decontamination workers who come across a supernatural realm in the hills above Fukushima aims to challenge existing 3/11 narratives by showing a multitude of perspectives.
Born and raised in Fukushima, where she still lives today, Chiba was an actor working in small Japanese theaters -- such as those in Tokyo's Shimokitazawa district -- before joining the "New Plays: Japan" initiative.
When she applied to participate at 35, the age limit for the program, she had no previous experience with playwriting but was inspired by her belief that key aspects of the post-3/11 story had been passed over in other plays written about it.
"From the beginning, I knew I wanted to write about Fukushima," Chiba said in an interview with Kyodo News. "Because this topic comes with so many large-scale social and political problems, I wanted to write about the people who have fallen between the cracks and are forgotten about within these arguments."
Matsumura's work deals with themes of birth, gender roles and motherhood, and grew out of Matsumura's own experience of expecting her first child and concerns about whether she could continue her career as a new mother. She has written and directed since 2014 and is also an actor.
Like Chiba and Matsumura, Kotaka had experience as an actor in smaller theaters before starting to write in 2015.
Her signature writing style is based around the "short and small utterances" of natural, everyday conversations. When working on a play, she often draws inspiration from sitting in cafes and overhearing snatches of peoples' dialogue.
She said she was aware of how that style made it a challenge to translate her work for a foreign audience.
"I thought that the small sentences in my plays would make sense to Japanese audiences because of their given cultural understanding...so I was curious to know what parts of my work could and could not be translated into English," she said.
The RCT's international associate director Sam Pritchard believes as a set the three plays highlighted how the joint project with NNTT allowed for an exchange and exploration of different Anglo-Japanese theatrical traditions, rather than either side "teaching" or "imposing" their practices on the other.
Pritchard also said the initiative complements the RCT's ethos as a self-styled "writers' theater," specializing exclusively in new works by contemporary playwrights worldwide.
"Our aim is always the same really, which is to develop relationships with the most distinct and exciting writers wherever they might be working, at whatever stage in their career...that was something the NNTT was also interested in," Pritchard said.
Eriko Ogawa, artistic director at the NNTT, which hosts a variety of performances from opera to regular stage plays, stressed the importance of promoting a new generation of playwrights and welcoming them into a major Japanese theater institution.
"New Plays: Japan" was a first for the NNTT, she says, both as a project focusing on young playwrights and as a long-standing partnership with an international theater company.
"This was a great opportunity for British audiences to hear the voices of young artists from Japan, to learn what they are doing and to see how they express themselves. This is clearly shown in these three plays," Ogawa said.
She is also proud that the project created opportunities for women in the industry to be successful. Along with the three playwrights, all three directors -- Mingyu Lin, Ailin Conant and Dadiow Lin -- and many others working on the project were women.
While Ogawa expressed admiration for aspects of Japanese culture that have found mainstream appeal abroad -- from the traditional arts to anime -- she hopes that "New Plays: Japan" has provided an exciting introduction to the thoughts and ideas of young Japanese writers.
"I'd really like to know what British audiences connect and respond to," Ogawa said. "At our end, we are really looking forward to seeing their reactions."
Zoe Frechin-Pollard, an audience member who studied Japanese at the University of Leeds and has an avid interest in theater and script-writing, said the three plays left a strong impression.
In particular, she enjoyed the angst-ridden surrealism of Matsumura's "28 hours 01 minute." "It had so much to say about the fear, loneliness and rage that comes with womanhood, while maintaining an ambivalence to its subject matter...The actors were fantastic, too!" she said.