Oriza Hirata, translated by Cody Poulton
Japanese theatre worthy of export is not just Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku, Butoh, Ninagawa and a number of western-trained ballet stars. Until recently you could have been forgiven for thinking so judging by what we have had the chance of seeing in Britain, but lately Londoners, as well as seeing a version of Neami's Noh play Nakamitsu at the Gate, have had a wider taste of modern Japanese drama with Trance by Shoji Kokami at the Bush and The Face of Jizo by Hisashi Inoue at the Arcola and, a couple of years ago, Yu Miri's Festival for the Fish at Wimbledon Studio - all in English language productions.
The Japan Foundation, together with Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre, now introduce British audiences to Oriza Hirata, a youngish dramatist (he's mid-40s) who apparently is regarded highly in his own country, winning the Kishida Kunio Drama Award in 1995 with Tokyo Notes, and has been getting many productions overseas - with a reading of this play at the Foundation's headquarters in Russell Square which had already been heard the day before in Cardiff..
The play is set 'some time in the near future' in a lobby in a Tokyo art gallery which has a loan exhibition of paintings by Vermeer. There is war in Europe and paintings are apparently being sent abroad for safety, so it may be some time before this exhibition is returned.
Visitors come in and out, including various members of the same family who appear to have arranged to meet here. Museum staff meet with a collector planning to give them her collection. These and other unrelated conversations interweave and overlap.
It was intriguing to see how skilfully playwright and performers handled this naturalistic dialogue but neither the gallery strand nor the family fragments are taken anywhere. Nor are any connections really made between the casually reported international situation and their lives, though one character does mention something about avoiding conscription. The play was written at the time of the Balkan upheaval was the infererence that Japan might try to sort it out? Hirata doesn't seem to be interested in plot or putting over any 'message'.
Director James Tyson and his Chapter actors gave a creditable performance that matched Hirata's writing by bringing characters on and off, placing individuals in the midst of other groups and talking across the performance space instead of with their co-conversationalists. It held because one was trying to piece these strands together, to find out what the author wanted us to discover,
In fact it emerged from an interview and conversation after the reading that plot and content are not Hirata's purpose. He is interested in trying to reproduce natural speech, in reaction to the style of Japanese theatre that imitated Western plays and dialogue. Japanese, he said, talk in unfinished sentences, incomplete ideas. He found western dialogue had unnaturally long sentences and didn't want to write Japanese that sounded like translation. He calls the new style he is after 'quiet theatre'; it deliberately lacks drama and action. It is a reflection of real life. I wonder do gallery executives in Tokyo really talk business in public areas, do the Japanese arrange family get-togethers at the entrance to art exhibitions?
I was intrigued to discover that the script of Tokyo Notes specifies frequent pauses. Sometimes they are a few seconds long, sometime he asks for the stage to be empty for two minutes. They did not observe these in the reading and I wonder would it really be possible to hold an audience for so long with an empty stage and nothing happening? Personally I doubt it the an English audience, but Hirata assured me that they had gone down well in France where one critic had enthusiastically dubbed him the 'Emperor of Silence'.
Hirata is certainly a skilled writer but is that enough? One play is not the basis for such judgements and I wait to see more of his work. If you live in Cardiff or Leeds there will be a chance to see his own production of another play later in the year.
Hirata's own company, Seinendan, will bring his "From S Plateau" to Chapter Arts on 29th February/1st March 2008, and to the University of Leeds on 6th March, playing in Japanese with surtitles.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton