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  • Metamorphosis of a Living Room (Ribingu Rūmu Metamoruflshizu)
  • Beri Juraic
METAMORPHOSIS OF A LIVING ROOM (RIBINGU RŪMU METAMORUFLSHIZU). By chelfitsch and Dai Fujikura with Klangforum Wien. Directed by Okada Toshiki. Holland Festival, Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam. June 8, 2023.

Renowned director and playwright Okada Toshiki needs no introduction. He is surely the main representative of contemporary Japanese theatre on the global stage. A lesser-known fact is that “eco-critical” performances have proliferated in Japan in the post-Fukushima period, including several of Okada’s productions. Many artists—such as Kamisato Yudai, Hagiwara Yuta’s Kamome Machine theatre company, and Matsui Shū—have been re-thinking environmental disasters in their own unique ways. In Okada’s recent work, the catastrophes of the Anthropocene are often problematized through playing with absence and presence—from stages filled with objects that seemingly communicate with or against the performers and disregard the audience (Eraser Mountain, 2019), to video screens placed into theatre and exhibitions spaces without performers at all (New-Illusion, 2022).

Metamorphosis of a Living Room (Ribingu Rūmu Metamorufōshizu), Okada’s latest piece with his chelfitsch theatre company, in collaboration with London-based Japanese composer Dai Fujikura and the Klangforum Wien ensemble, continued this exploration of the Anthropocene. The topic of climate change nevertheless arose in a more human form, with six actors and seven musicians who seamlessly [End Page 567] recited and dialogued with Okada’s poetic text about a looming disaster. There was also an underlying sense of satire about the nature of theatre-making internationally. I watched the performance at Amsterdam’s Holland Festival during its initial tour; another notable stop was at Austria’s Wiener Festwochen, which commissioned the work.

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Music and theatre collide with stage poetry in Metamorphosis of a Living Room. Photo: Nurith Wagner Strauss.

The performance started in medias res, in the living room of an extended family during a torrential downpour. Scenography by Okada’s regular collaborators, dot architects, was quite simple, consisting of bare wooden structures with a couple of colorful props thrown in. As the family members bickered about who forgot to bring in the blankets drying outside, they received notice that they were being evicted from their rented apartment. The eldest daughter (Aoyagi Izumi) informed the rest of the family that this was illegal and proceeded to write and read aloud a very funny letter to the landlord, using ultra-polite Japanese. However, this was probably lost on the non-Japanese speaking audience who relied on projected supertitles. It is a pity because Okada is often associated with the use of hyper-colloquial Japanese and this scene was certainly a departure from that.

Since Japan imposed significant restrictions on travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, Metamorphosis of a Living Room was initially rehearsed remotely with Fujikura sending music files from his living room in London. Okada and Fujikura set out to create an entirely new performance style where music and theatre could exist independently from one another on stage. Fujikura’s compositions, played by musicians seated in a semi-circle under the proscenium with actors behind them, were the crucial driver of the narrative, as they played with and commented on the performers’ actions and lines—just like a Greek chorus. As soon as the performers mentioned rain, for example, they created a beautiful and mysterious rain sound. At other times, the music worked more independently by going against the grain of the performers’ actions on stage, especially when there was less dialogue and more movement. In spite of their intentions, the two collaborators never quite succeeded in creating something new. The attempted separation of the performers’ voices and gestures from the music is arguably a re-working of classical Japanese theatre aesthetics that veer towards the separation of performative elements.

As the performance progressed, a man (Ohmura Wataru) showed up in the garden covered in black [End Page 568] slime, reminiscent of the monster in Edward Bond’s Red Black and Ignorant and the contemporary figure of a climate migrant. From this moment onward, the stage slowly transformed into a strange world inhabited by bizarre colors. The...