Oriza Hirata may not be a name you’re likely to recognise, even if you’re an avid theatregoer, not least because of our woeful ignorance of what’s happening on the stage outside the UK. Hirata is one of the leading Japanese playwrights and directors and his Seinendan Company will be in Cardiff next month with one of his classics, From S Plateau, launching a season that will do something to redress the absence of non-European theatre in Wales as Chapter (inevitably) hosts eight months of Wales-Japan exchanges. And as an appetiser we have a rehearsed reading of Tokyo Notes, a Hirata play that may well be based on the 1953 classic Tokyo Story (which movie buffs recognise as one of the best films ever made) but which is strangely in synch with much contemporary European theatre.
Hirata takes the family from Ozu’s film, a disparate bunch who rarely meet, and mixes them with visitors to a Vermeer exhibition to create a series of snapshots where nothing really happens. The time is in some ways ambiguous (especially since a rehearsed reading features actors in their everyday clothes rather than costumes that might offer clues), set during a future time when Europe is at war, though we infer from an internal reference that the year is 2004, ten years after the play was written. But this co-production between Chapter Stiwdio and the Japan Foundation with On The Edge is very much a “reading” in several senses as director James Tyson offers a confusing take on the original – a deconstruction of a deconstruction, as it were.
He takes the rehearsed-reading convention of a line of chairs and performers taking on multiple roles and has his cast of ten handling twenty parts, with two characters being played by two different actors – still with me ? If it weren’t for the brief programme notes, I might have been hopelessly lost… and I know a lot of the audience didn’t even realise that all but three of the cast played up to four different people.
Tyson has assembled a motley crew for this complex version, from the very experienced Sharon Morgan to the dancer-performance artist Anushiye Yarnell, and any idea that this might be an ensemble piece is shattered pretty early on, with a whole range of acting styles jostling against each other. Ms Morgan and Alex Alderton, for example, play their roles very naturalistically, Ms Yarnell and Rebecca Woodford-Smith are disconcertingly flat, John Rowley turns odd moments almost into Forced Entertainment scenes, Tyson himself elects to speak as the only Japanese-accented character and the underrated Nathan Sussex tries to anchor it all with a suitably Pinteresque impassivity. Tyson, faced with the challenge of differentiating the different characters, offers us a suitably Japanese system by playing it as a kind of board game where each character has their own seat. The comings and goings, as they move from a huddle at the back of the stage to the row of chairs at the front, and then even scoot from chair to chair to assume their roles, is mildly fascinating but doesn’t really solve the problem – we’re still unnecessarily flummoxed as to what’s happening and who is who.
For me Tyson’s direction obscured what seems to be an intriguing and intelligent play, with its non-ideological meditation on Japan’s role in the world, its setting of a Dutch masters exhibition offering, through the metaphors of the domestic genre, technique and use of the camera obscura, ideas about light and dark and reality. It may seem difficult but in many ways this “quiet theatre” study of relationships, of duties and responsibilities, while devoid of recognisable dramatic devices, is just what postmodern, post-drama theatre is doing in Europe.