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  • A Midsummer Night's Manga: An Anglo-Japanese Collaboration at The New National Theatre, Tokyo
  • Todd Andrew Borlik
A Midsummer Night's Manga: An Anglo-Japanese Collaboration at The New National Theatre, Tokyo, May 31–June 17, 2007

Attending a Shakespeare play in a foreign language can be like returning to a childhood home thirty years after one's family moved away; the architecture is the same but the ambiance is decidedly unfamiliar. Audience members less than fluent in the tongue—full disclosure: my knowledge of Japanese is rudimentary at best—will find that their attention drifts from Shakespeare's verbal pyrotechnics to fixate with greater acuity than usual on the visual and physical aspects of the performance. Fortunately spectacle looms large in A Midsummer Night's Dream and this production at the New National Theater in Tokyo exploited it with creativity and verve to leap sprightly over the language barrier. Shifting back and forth between a neo-classical Athens and a futuristic Tokyo (with a few glimpses of Elizabethan London), this Dream achieved an innovative fusion of English and Japanese culture which, startling at first, had by Act Five grown "to something of great constancy / But, howsoever, strange and admirable."

The cast, studded with well-known Japanese actors, was phenomenal; given that many were making their first foray into Shakespeare, a great deal of the credit for the success of this production also belongs to director John Caird, a RSC veteran with over twenty Shakespeare plays under his belt, including an acclaimed version of the Dream at The Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in 2000. While this was his first time directing Shakespeare in Japan, Caird has previously overseen Tokyo productions of Les Misérables and The Beggar's Opera. His musical background was evident from the start, as a live eight-piece band performed a rousing jazz rendition of Mendelssohn's Overture, which segued into the first of the play's many dance sequences. Certainly there needs no director come from the RSC to tell us that the Dream lends itself well to the balletic, and yet the choreography, ranging from stately waltzes to frenetic break-dancing [End Page 136] (and sometimes both combined in extended schizophrenic medleys) was outstanding and consistently inventive, while the live band helped the actors sustain a level of energy unmatched in the twenty-odd productions I've seen of this play.

Despite several familiar elements (even a lanky blond Helena), this show featured some distinctly Japanese flourishes, illustrating the potential for cross-cultural Shakespeare. The forest seemed less a forest than an enchanted landfill, evoking the post-natural urban wastelands of Japanese science fiction. Black metal staircases snaked round the skeleton of three wrought-iron trees with random debris entangled in the branches. The most striking innovation was the costumes of the faeries, designed by Sue Blane with the same playful panache she brought to the wardrobe of the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Clad in white tube tops, white tutus, white thigh-high socks, and black tennis shoes, and sporting wild dyed pastel hair-dos, the faeries in Titania's entourage seemed to have fluttered straight out of the pages of a Japanese manga—the graphic novels that are something of a national obsession and have developed a sizeable fan-base in the West. Or, considering that these roles were all filled by adolescent girls (led by Kanda Sayaka, daughter of a legendary J-pop star in the role of Peaseblossom), perhaps a more precise analogy would be with the cos-play (short for costume play)—the troupes of suburban teenagers (mostly female, mostly misfits) who descend on Harajuku station on weekends decked out as their favorite manga characters for impromptu fashion shows. From a sociological perspective, the outlandish costumes provide the cos-play with a sense of psychic liberation, an escape from their mundane personality and the strict dress code of Japanese schools where identity-effacing uniforms are de rigeur. Shakespeare's plays are full of references to the power of clothes to alter our sense of self (recall Perdita's line "methinks this robe of mine doth change my disposition"); likewise the allusion to cos...