‘Next is King Lear!’ In the early hours of the 23rd of March 2010, just as I put the finishing touches to the script of ‘Atui Othello’ (Atui being ‘sea’ in the language of the Ainu) in which I had replaced the original Italy with Ezo region, where the Sendai clan had been dispatched to protect the northern area, and the brown Moors with the Ainu, I remember whispering those words. But, having barely returned from the Hachinohe performance of that ‘Tohoku Othello’, we were ravished by an earthquake and an even more terrible tsunami. I was not alone in thinking ‘That’s it! We’re finished. We’ll never perform again!’
There are probably very few people in the North East who weren’t affected by that disaster. People lost their lives. There are people who lost family and friends, those whose houses or workplaces were either washed away or destroyed. And there are people who know people who suffered. We suffered on many different levels that day.
The Shakespeare Company is not a professional troupe. We are amateurs. Which means that there is no one who can pay for food, rent or school through our activities. To look at it in a different way, each and every one of us has our right foot firmly placed in the reality where we live. I myself am a university professor, and amongst the actors we have a variety of people such as an optician’s assistant, a housewife, a company director, a high school teacher, a university student, a vocational college student, a high school student; ages range from teens to fifties.
The fact is, we don’t spend everyday immersed in the world of theatre and we all have a different world to be in. In particular, we place importance on the words passed on from our mothers and grandmothers and on dialect, and so for us the source of our material is found in everyday life. Naturally, when the ground beneath our right foot crumbles away, everything tumbles.
There are two reasons that today we are performing ‘New Romeo and Juliet’ and not ‘King Lear’. Firstly, out of the approximately 15,000 people who have come to see our humble plays between 1995 and 2011, there was one particular comment from an old lady. ‘You’re quitting are you? Aah! Every year I look forward to seeing you. You should continue!’ We had been doing this for fun but we realized, at that moment, the obvious fact that we had been able to continue in this fashion for 16 years (as of last year) because people came to see us and that moved us. But that old lady added ‘But do something short where no one dies.’ Until then we had been crouching but with those words, we rose up.
The other reason is something that happened when I just happened to be visiting the birthplace of our troupe, British Hills in Fukushima prefecture. Normally this English village in Japan is swarming with guests and the cuckoos are calling. This time there wasn’t a soul. I remembered the last scene of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that we performed here - the souls of the two lovers who miss meeting and commit suicide, rise up, hold hands and shoulder to shoulder cross the courtyard in front of the manor house, and in the middle of that courtyard is a statue of Shakespeare who watches over the two, a midsummer’s night scene. Before I knew it, I found myself stood next to Shakespeare, and quite rudely I climbed up onto the plinth and started speaking. First in English and then in my Sendai dialect. ‘Aah….it’s been a long time. Sorry, I’ve been away…….and so much’s happened but we’re still alive, and I tell you, we’re going to do another play.’ After staring into space for a while I decided to head back to my room when suddenly, seemingly hallucinating, I heard Shakespeare say ‘Come back again!’ But it wasn’t in English, it was the Sendai dialect. Was I talking to myself? I don’t think so but maybe the fact that I was visiting British Hills just by chance actually had meaning. The ‘King Lear’ that I had been contemplating disappeared, and the next morning I wrote in my journal - Next ‘New Romeo and Juliet’!
I returned to Sendai, and with the troupe’s future hanging by a thread I told everyone about what Shakespeare had said. I remember their eyes lit up and they said ‘We’d love to do a new Romeo and Juliet!’ However, our troupe was like a starved raccoon dog without those members who were no longer able to join us, so we decided to gather new troupe members and started auditions on a scale previously never done. Most of those who auditioned were in their late teens or early twenties, the perfect age range for the original Romeo and Juliet.
At the same time as the auditions, the adaptation group were hard at work and they came up with three main cornerstones. ‘A short comedy (60-90 minutes), place: a spa resort, time: late 1950’s (Showa 30)’. And so, bearing in mind Shakespeare’s words ‘Come back again!’, our production policy was decided: ‘3 comedies (Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, As You Like It) in three years, touring the disaster areas Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate. Lighting and music if any, to be minimal, much like in Shakespeare’s time, aiming to be a spoken play, a verbal feast. To be made without spending money. A play akin to a simple lunch box - rice-balls and pickles, nothing extravagant.’ The conceptualisation of the script took place at Onagawa. It wasn’t because I thought it would be set in Onagawa. I thought that by looking at the scenery, feeling the atmosphere, I would be able to think, it would be my starting point.
There is a member of the UK Royal Shakespeare Company, Cicely Berry, who taught me the secrets of directing. She had something that she would say before every new production that inspired the actors and all the production staff, and I would like to use those same words to finish as we too start on our new journey.
‘Everyone, here we go on our voyage of discovery!’