Going round the port towns of Sanriku, I am asked ‘Why are you going to Tokyo?’. Two years ago we performed in the North East for the people of the North East. With that in mind we travelled around the port towns that were on the receiving end of that catastrophic disaster. But, over time I’ve made the decision to take our plays, which have been shaped by the people who filled questionnaires with their thoughts and encouragements, who watched, laughed and cried at our humble plays, to the people of Tokyo. And, because it seems like they may have already forgotten, I want people to remember those who live on the North East coast.
It has been three years since the earthquake and tsunami hit Eastern Japan. What has changed in that time? The rubble has gone. Japanese like things to be clean and tidy and so first of all we tidied up the port towns of Sanriku. However, an old lady I met in Southern Sanriku told me this. ‘They should’ve left the rubble. Once it’s tidied, people forget how bad things were. More importantly, they should help the people. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us.’ It’s not that I don’t think ‘Things have come along pretty well!’ but, when you think about it, for those who are stuck in that terrible situation, my only thought is ‘After three years and it’s still like this!’.
Just as there is a discrepancy in the amount of aid between areas, the same is true between victims of the disaster. And not everyone who lives in a so-called disaster area is regarded as a victim. Rather, there are a number of people who are reluctant to be called so. As I travelled from port to port, the thing that I thought had changed in one year was the number of people living in temporary accommodation - less than half. That is a good thing. However, that means that the remaining half are still living in cramped conditions with no place to go. If there was some outlook, it would be OK, but without that, living becomes unbearable.
People won’t come just because it’s Shakespeare. Even if we put a poster for ‘King Lear’ in the newsletter or on the bulletin board, people won’t come. When we take posters round to every single house, stop to talk to people, have tea together, eat snacks together, get to know people, that is when they start saying ‘I guess I’ll come and see your play tomorrow.’ Compared to last year, more people are willing to talk. Those who kept silent before talk to us about their life and frustrations with the town. I think about how good it is to be able to talk freely. Silence creates poison. I recall William Blake’s poem ‘A Poison Tree’. And so I realise just listening to these stories is good.
Before we knew it, the Shakespeare Company had worked our way around the whole area. We ourselves were victims, and despite the fact that we shouldn’t be that free, but in no time at all it had become a very natural thing to do. The number of victims - killed directly or indirectly, or still missing - is over 21,500, and there are 270,000 evacuees still living in temporary accommodation. The number of volunteers has fallen from it’s peak of 130,000 in the summer of 2011 to a few thousand. The towns have been cleaned and it seems like nothing ever happened, and the number of entertainers and celebrities who visit the area has fallen dramatically. Of course, there are still a number of volunteers at different levels. But, the darkness in the hearts of the victims remains unchanged, and if anything, could be thought as becoming a complex darkness.
Our first ever performance was in August 1995 at British Hills, a corner of Britain in the village of Tenei, Fukushima prefecture. In the summer of 2011 I just happened to be on trip to the birthplace of the troupe with a friend. However, the only people visiting that once popular destination were us. The manager painfully told us ‘If this situation continues, this place will be no more!’ We had dinner. Six foreign members of staff surrounded us. What a waste.
That evening, under a blanket of stars, I paid a solitary visit to the statue of Shakespeare that stands in the courtyard in front of the manor house, and I thought ‘We’re going to return the favour to the people of Fukushima. We’re going to say thanks to all the people of the North East who have helped us come this far!’ What do we start with? Of course, it had to be ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that we had done here. When I told my daughters that, they cheered. I realised that the name itself has a kind of magical power. With this Shakespeare play that everybody knows, we were going to move the hearts of children and the younger generation. Through the culmination of various chance meetings, something will be created. A few months previous to my visit to Tenei, I met an old lady in the streets of a ravished Sendai. ‘Ah, you’re Shimodate, aren’t you? You’re quitting theatre, are you? You should continue. But do something short where no one dies. I’m looking forward to it!’ And feeling as if I had been taken unawares, tears started to well up in my eyes.
For the auditions, we advertised for young people and for the first time I wrote a play following the request of the audience. It was the birth of a 70 minute ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
I started the Shakespeare Company in 1992. Seven years later we played the Edinburgh Festival and then in Tokyo. At the same time, we had invitations for festivals and performances abroad in such places as Chile and Germany. Despite being amateur, we started looking to reach more people, more cities, further abroad. However, we started to feel a contradiction. At a performance on our home turf, Sendai, a voice rose up ‘We can’t understand the troupe’s dialect!’. Surely the people of Aomori, Hachinohe, Morioka, Fukushima, Yamagata wouldn’t understand it either? So, who were we actually performing for?
The fact is we weren’t touring the disaster areas with any firm conviction. Rather we proceeded cautiously. That’s because the anxiety about whether our play would be accepted or not was greater than our confidence. But, the words of an 87-year-old lady we met at the Onagawa performance taught us that our existence wasn’t without meaning and that we had to keep going.
‘I understood everything. I now remember the first time I met my husband who died in the tsunami and my heart’s racing. It was great! It was like a dream. I had a wonderful time. Thanks so much!’
On hearing what the old lady said, we realised that more than any other language, our language was the language of Sanriku. Ironically, I thought it’s the language of the small port towns of Sanriku which we would never have visited if it wasn’t for that earthquake and that tsunami.
I am asked why is ‘King Lear’ set in a sushi restaurant. However, rather than say that I thought of it, there is probably a simpler explanation. I was brought up in a area which has the highest proportion of sushi restaurants to population, and I asked myself ‘Of all of Shakespeare’s works, which would be best suited to be staged in a sushi restaurant?’ One day, whilst sat at the counter of a sushi restaurant in my hometown of Shiogama, I asked this ridiculous question out loud and on listing the four great tragedies, the toothless red-faced old man next to me said ‘You know, it’d be Lear-sushi.’ and that is my reason. That old man’s ‘Lear-sushi’ had a ring to it. The Tohoku Shakespeare bell was resounding! OK, Lear-sushi! The Ria Coast (Riasushikikaigan) would be the cliffs of Dover,Burtienchou in Sanriku would be the isle of Britain, Oyakata Ria would be King Lear, the female sushi chef would be Cordelia. So, what to do about France? What about the mother of the three daughters? What about the Earl of Gloucester? Edgar? Edmund and the two sisters?
This is where the script concept group who showed excellent teamwork with their adaptation of ‘Macbeth’, come to the front. But, what grounded us on a reef was the fact that King Lear’s servants get reduced from 100 to 50. A sushi chef doesn’t have that many servants…..so, what should we do? That is what you have to look forward to!
Finally, I would like to say a big thank you to the proprietors of the Jisso-ji temple who have warmly greeted us and allowed us to use this wonderful place. This is the final destination for ‘New King Lear’. With our hearts filled with the sincerity of those in the disaster area, we shall strive to give you our best performance.