A Season in Inter-cultural Limbo: Ninagawa Yukio’s Doctor Faustus, Theatre Cocoon, Tokyo (Review)
Todd Borlik, Bloomsburg University
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Of the handful of non-Western Shakespearean directors whose shadows stretch beyond their home countries, few cast a more formidable than Ninagawa Yukio. His patented style, a flamboyant synthesis of Eastern aesthetics and Western texts, has entranced audiences from Tokyo to Stratford—though perhaps not always, as we shall see, for the same reasons. In his landmark Macbeth (premiered in Tokyo in 1980, performed in Edinburgh in 1985), Ninagawa framed the stage as a giant butsudan—a Buddhist altar for commemorating dead relatives—and metamorphosed Birnham wood into a roving grove of blossom-spangled cherry trees. He relocated The Tempest (1987) from an anonymous Mediterranean isle to Sado-ga-shima and associated Prospero with Zeami—the founder of Noh drama exiled there in the thirteenth century. In 1994 he uprooted A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Athenian woods, transplanting it to a Zen rock garden in Kyoto. Critics, especially Western critics, were awed by the visual poetry of his productions and the elegant allusions to traditional Japanese culture. Ninagawa’s work has even been given the radiant imprimatur of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has invited him to England on three separate occasions to direct productions of King Lear, Pericles, and Titus Andronicus.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 3 In the wake of this international acclaim, however, a few Shakespeare scholars began to scent something rotten in Tokyo. Kishi Tetsuo and Yeeyom Im have rebuked Western reviewers for drawing sloppy parallels with Kabuki and Noh, and accused Ninagawa of a kind of theatrical orientalism, a gratuitous exoticizing of the plays that detracts from the text. Certainly any foreign spectator (particularly one such as myself with only a limited command of Japanese) needs to remain wary of succumbing to an aura of Otherness when attempting to decipher the work of non-Western directors. Nevertheless, understanding how and why Shakespeare gets exported abroad remains an urgent task for performance criticism. As Dennis Kennedy observes, “if we are to make the study and performance of Shakespeare fully contemporary and fully international we must worry less about his textual meaning and more about his prodigious appropriation (or misappropriation) in a global context.” But who determines, and on what grounds, if Shakespeare has been appropriated properly? Too often critics have sought to proffer such judgments without examining the tacit cultural assumptions underwriting their responses. Rather than simply validating claims of Shakespeare’s universality, Ninagawa’s inter-cultural adaptations can incite reviewers to recognize and perhaps rethink their Anglo-centric standards of exegesis.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 As if anticipating some of these critiques of his work, Ninagawa has throughout the past decade or so fitfully drifted from the formula of mashing Eastern and Western dramatic traditions on the grounds that Shakespeare has become—thanks to the 90s film boom and Ninagawa’s own success—familiar enough to Japanese to require no cultural translation. Yet the same cannot be said for Christopher Marlowe and his Renaissance morality play. Ninagawa’s recent production of Doctor Faustus at the Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo was a triumphant return to form, but a return with a difference: the production never permitted audiences to forget that they were watching a Japanese appropriation of an English text. Rather than seamlessly merge Eastern and Western idioms, the predicament of Japanese actors mounting a performance of an English classic came across as problematic, tantamount to a courageous flouting of damnation parallel to that of Marlowe’s tragic hero.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The unsettled relationship between Japanese and English drama was evident even in the appearance of the theatre. Although the Theatre Cocoon is housed in the ultra-modern Bunkamura Arts Complex, there had been an evident attempt to imbue it with the ambiance of the old Kabuki-za, complete with the burnt orange-green-black vertical striped curtain. Red paper lanterns were strung in a U around the edges of the auditorium. As the crowd filtered in, the fue (flute) and otsuzumi (drum) played a desultory duet. The Prologue concluded his speech by chasing up the curtain, as is traditionally done in Kabuki, with the piercing clack of the hyoshigi, the wooden clapping sticks, struck in crescendo. But instead of unveiling a Kabuki version of the tragedy, the curtain rose on a thoroughly Gothic-looking study and a Faustus clad in the long black cloak of the European Renaissance scholar. Enormous books, the size of double Elephant Folios, lay strewn about the room. Faustus would later scamper up them like stair-steps to bestride his desk (which often served as a stage-within-the-stage): an apt visual allegory of the correlation between knowledge and power.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The probability that Ninagawa would seek to find a Japanese equivalent for the Faust legend seemed high, given his casting of Nomura Mansai in the title role. Nomura is a respected Kyogen actor with considerable Shakespearean experience. He has played Hamlet, performed in a Kyogen adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, and may be familiar to some Western scholars for his supporting role as the blind flute player Tsurumaru in Ran, Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear. But Nomura is perhaps best known in Japan for starring in the Onmyo-ji movies (translated as The Ying-Yang Master) as Abe no Seimei, the famed Heian-era magus of the Ministry of Divination. Given that Seimei allegedly had the power to command demons and used the pentagram as a personal crest he seems an ideal match for the Faust archetype. But the production made no allusions whatsoever to Japan’s once robust tradition of occult magic.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In a notorious theatrical legend, Elizabethan actors staging Doctor Faustus at Exeter panicked and stopped the performance when they became convinced “there was one devell too many amongst them.” No one watching or participating in this production could make the same mistake. Nevertheless, Ninagawa’s Faustus was a colorful, high-flying (literally), and boisterous realization of the play in which the director’s own brand of theatrical sorcery was on exuberant display.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The first spellbinding moment of the performance came when Faustus summoned Mephistopheles. Slingshotted from below the stage to the rafters at rocket-speed, Mephistopheles appeared in an enormous silver dragon costume, soaring and flapping his wings, as the sound system blared the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem. When Faustus ordered Mephistopheles (played with ferocious intensity by Katsumura Masanobu) to return in the shape of a Franciscan Friar, he promptly descended back into the pit. However, the area beneath the stage, known of course in the Elizabethan theatre as “hell,” was illuminated by crimson light. Since the stage was raised, Mephistopheles’ costume change, aided by a team of actors who unclasped and re-clasped his aerial harness, was entirely visible. The moment elicited audible gasps from the audience.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This proved to be only the first of many attempts to deconstruct hell as a theatrical illusion. When Faustus asked Mephistopheles how he had escaped from hell, Katsumura, floating fifteen feet in the air, spun about to face the silver-tinted glass wall at the rear of the stage. His chilling reply, “Why this hell,” was all the more chilling for being delivered to the audience’s reflection. It was as if we, the anonymous horde of faces, were the real demonic legion and he an indignant spirit imprisoned in the damnation of our gaze. This tableau lingered for two long seconds when a sudden flash turned the reflective wall translucent, revealing a three-tiered dressing room backstage bathed in red light where one could see various actors applying make-up, adjusting their kimonos and obis, or practicing their lines and blocking. Hell, it seems, was not only below the stage but also behind it. Since I could not read the program notes in which Ninagawa explained his concept for the production—a Kabuki troupe staging Doctor Faustus—this moment was, for me, jarring as it was stunning. The jarring sensation was no doubt intended. Ninagawa is a past master at such Brechtian effects. In fact, he recycled this set design from his 1995 production of Hamlet. In Hamlet the exposed dressing room served to remind viewers that they were watching Asian actors impersonating Caucasian characters. In Doctor Faustus, it had the added effect of reminding the audience that these were humans impersonating demons.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 On the downside, unmasking the demons risks attenuating Faustus’s tragic grandeur. Arguably, however, in the twenty-first century few spectators believe in the literal existence of such spirits anyway. So showing the actors slipping into their red spandex body suits and aerial harnesses served to vindicate Faustus’s doubts about the afterlife. Insinuating that hell is, like the Masque of the Seven Deadly Sins, merely a play put on to delude Faustus, the production thus managed to extend the tragedy’s reinterpretation of it as a psychological condition rather than a geographic place. Despite its medieval trappings, Faustus is, for Ningawa, a thoroughly modern play. Based on his comments in the director’s notes, Ninagawa seems to have approached Marlowe’s text as a dramatization of Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer. He likens Faustus to the French symbolist poet in that they both embrace madness and intoxication as a means of accessing heightened states of reality and rebelling against bourgeois morality. Nomura’s Faustus was on a heroic yet doomed quest posséder la vérité dans une âme et un corps [to enjoy the whole truth in one soul and one body].
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 3 The director’s notes also describe Faustus as aspiring to a “revolutionary transformation of the world.” In this respect, Ninagawa, who still fondly recalls his heady experiments with radical avant-garde drama in the 60s, has a smack of Faustus about him. It was Mephistopheles, however, who came across as a kind of surrogate for the director. When the Carolignian emperor asked to inspect the neck of Alexander the Great’s lover, we could see Mephistopheles frantically rummaging backstage through a prop-box until he found a mole and raced down a staircase to slap it on her just as the Emperor approached. As Faustus signed the contract with Lucifer, Mephistopheles stood in the orchestra pit conducting in sync with the music while playing air-traffic controller to the squadron of demons hovering above the doomed conjuror.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 While Ninagawa thought of Faustus as a precursor of Rimbaud, Nomura seems to have taken a biographical approach to the role. This interpretation may have influenced the actor’s costume at the end of the play when he appeared in a shoulder-length blondish wig that made him look uncannily like the Corpus Christi portrait (supposedly) of Marlowe. Having studied Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning, Nomura speculates in his interview that Marlowe may well have known that certain powers-that-be were conspiring to have him assassinated. For Nomura, the tragedy voices the playwright’s own anxieties of facing death bereft of God. Instead of relapsing to a craven fear of Christian hell, his final desperate soliloquies articulate the existential dread of the modern humanist unable to believe in the consoling delusion of the afterlife.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 Any contemporary director of the play, regardless of nationality, must confront the challenge of involving modern secular audiences in the abstruse quandaries of Reformation theology. This may pose an even larger hurdle for non-Western audiences. Although Buddhism does have a fatalistic streak and accepts reincarnation (not unlike the Pythagorean metempsychosis invoked by Faustus), Japanese religion does not promote the idea of a personal relationship with one’s God. How can you make viewers in twenty-first century Tokyo relate to the psycho-spiritual torment of a lapsed Calvinist? Rather than force Buddhist or Shinto parallels, Ninagawa decided “to blend the lofty world of European theology with Japanese Kabuki and its stylized portrayals of the tawdry Edo demimonde to mirror Faustus’s inner conflict between spiritual and earthly delights.” His aim, he goes on to say in the notes, was to stage a Faustus as scandalous as Marlowe’s would have been in 1590. Whether this tactic was entirely successful or not probably depends on the expectations of the beholder. Some critics like Kishi might find the flickering appearances of the Kabuki actors backstage another instance of Ninagawa’s contrived exoticism. The acting style, with a few key exceptions, conformed to the standards of Western dramatic realism. Yet watching the production in Tokyo in Japanese (without subtitles or earpiece translators), it was easier to see these flourishes as Ninagawa intended them: a means of claiming the work for Japanese performers and audiences. By embedding an English-play-within-a-Japanese-play(house), Ninagawa in effect managed to “stage the metadrama” of his own inter-cultural theatre.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 3 Beyond its scandalous conception, the production featured some risqué moments, in keeping with Marlowe’s reputation as the bad boy of Elizabethan drama. During the scene at the Vatican, Nomura performed the sacrilegious pranks with genuine rage. At one point, he pretended to sodomize a cardinal with a candlestick. The Vatican scenes were, nevertheless, the funniest in the production. Time was modulated throughout so while Faustus and Mephistopheles terrorized the Pope’s banquet, the cardinals’ faces distorted in slow-motion into uproariously grotesque expressions of fear and trembling.. In the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins, meanwhile, Lechery emerged to perform her striptease in black silk stockings and an anatomically implausible K-cup bra. With its decadent hedonism, meta-theatricality and surreal spectacle, the performance had a kind of Fellini-esque quality (Ninagawa even cast two dwarves in the role of flying demons). After Faustus signed the pact, he and Mephistopheles leapt up on his massive desk and danced an elaborate tango. Commenting on this moment in the notes, Ninagawa states that he chose the tango as a musical expression of Faustus’ ecstatic pursuit of the utmost limits of sensuous experience. Music figured prominently in the production, alternating between the soft strains of the Japanese samisen and Carmina Burana, between the tango La Cumparasita and Bach’s Mass in B Minor, further underscoring the tension between the profane and the sacred. The tango scene also conveyed the tension between Faustus and Mephistopheles, which at times verged on the homoerotic. Mephistopheles slipped a woman’s red kimono over the scholar’s robes and took the lead in the dance, which culminated in a kiss. The homoeroticism was later exacerbated by having Faustus embrace a topless Helen of Troy, played by—as it would have been originally—an effeminate young man (though I had to check the program for verification) with prosthetic breasts. Cumulatively, these moments made the production seem hell-bent, as it were, on reviving the Elizabethan Puritans’ notion of theatre as a morally perilous art form. Consequently, another side-effect of the Kabuki frame-play was to equate the glamour and material splendor of Japanese drama with the intoxicating pleasures of the empirical world for which the tragic protagonist is willing to forfeit salvation.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 Given Ninagawa’s penchant for spectacle, it is not surprising he opted for the B-text of the play (in a new translation by Kawai Shoichiro). The 1616 version affords some unique and wonderful stage business: Faustus conjuring moving trees and a zombie army, Benvolio decapitating the conjuror’s ersatz head (lifted up on a string by puppeteers like those of Japanese Bunraku), a duel between Alexander the Great and Darius (here done in the style of a Kabuki sword-fight). Unfortunately, in the opinion of many critics (myself included), the B-text diminishes Faustus by having him squander more of his 24-year lease by performing parlor tricks and outfoxing drunken courtiers. To his credit, Ninagawa was conscious of this liability. During the scene in which Faustus magically imports grapes in winter, Mephistopheles stood in the orchestra pit, dangling a pocket watch and grinning with malicious, conspiratorial glee at the audience. This moment was echoed visually in the final scene in Faustus’s study, when the humungous shadow of a pendulum swayed back and forth across the stage. If Faustus’ last hour did not inspire a dread of eternal punishment, his death still aroused sympathy: the extinguishing of a vibrant consciousness that refused to detach the body from the soul. When he vanished below the stage, he seemed less of a lost soul hauled away to damnation than a revolutionary aesthete arrested by a puritanical regime. What the performance lacked in spiritual gravitas (a lack no doubt exacerbated by my meager Japanese), it more than compensated with audacity, visual wit, and dramaturgical sturm und drang.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 4 Earlier I suggested one of the great assets of Ninagawa’s work is its ability to incite critical reflexivity. Watching his Doctor Faustus triggered an epiphany of how my Western literary prejudices stretching back to Aristotle had lead me to underestimate the extent to which spectacle, rather than language, can provoke pity and terror. Whereas the Elizabethan stage was paradoxically nurtured by a Protestant, text-centered culture suspicious of “show,” Noh and Kabuki rely more heavily on the visual to generate dramatic energy. Yet Marlowe, to a greater degree than Shakespeare, revels in the pomp and glamour of theatre. Considering that Marlowe also perversely identifies with cultural Others in order to deconstruct the hegemonic values of Tudor England, his work seems eminently suited to showcase Ninagawa’s intercultural aesthetic, and the challenge it poses to Eurocentric and—one might add, perhaps redundantly—Bard-o-centric norms.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 To appraise Ninagawa’s adaptations properly, one needs to situate them in the context of Japanese drama and the history of its relationship with the West. For much of the twentieth century, Japanese theatre was dominated by shingeki (New Drama), which sought to recreate authentic productions of European plays in accordance with the dictates of Western theatrical realism. At an early point in his career Ninagawa recognized that for a Japanese theatre company to produce nothing but straightforward shingeki would be fundamentally dishonest, even slavish. From this angle, the self-conscious japonisme of Ninagawa’s Shakespeare might be taken as a bulwark against Anglophone cultural imperialism. Through exposing a shingeki production as inescapably Japanese, Ninagawa’s Faustus created an inter-cultural aesthetic that erodes any facile binary between West and East, between authentic and foreign. To Yong Li Lan, Ninagawa’s work can be seen as enacting the very idea of the inter-cultural, performing a utopian ideal of a cosmopolitan, “internationalized audience community, whose cultural belongings are several, intermittent, incomplete.” Lan’s concern that in such inter-cultural productions “Shakespeare [or in this case Marlowe] still functions as the measure of authentic human experience,” will regrettably remain valid as long as Western theatre-goers only attend performances of Western plays. Unless Western audiences have an opportunity to seek out more non-Western theatre, Japanese directors and actors will remain confined, figuratively speaking, in an inter-cultural purgatory: to be credited with a theatre of global significance only when staging Western classics.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 A brief epilogue: as soon as the thunderous applause faded, my wife and I sprinted out into the lobby to catch the last bullet train home, and almost bumped right into Ninagawa. Stunned, I could only manage to stammer in disbelief, “It’s Ninagawa-san.” My wife and I bowed as he walked past. He smiled (a smile that conveyed both a monk-like humility and the radiant joy of someone who absolutely loves doing what he does), bowed ever so slightly back in recognition and, like Faustus into a welcoming hell-mouth, vanished behind a door leading backstage.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0  Tetsuo Kishi, “Japanese Shakespeare and English Reviewers,” in Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage, ed. Takasahi Sasayama. J.R. Mulryne, and Margaret Shewring (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 110-123. Yeeyom Im offers a more nuanced, moderate critique in “Pitfalls of Intercultural Discourse,” Shakespeare Bulletin 22:4 (2004): 7-30. Conversely, Dennis Kennedy has charged Ninagawa with an opportunistic occidentalism in “Shakespeare and the Global Spectator,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch 131 (1995): 50-64.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0  For instance, it must be said that Ninagawa’s japonisme, in contrast to that of Kenneth Branagh’s 2007 film of As You Like It, was aimed initially at Japanese audiences, as Kawai Shoichiro observes in “Ninagawa Yukio,” in The Routledge Companion to Directors’ Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Routledge, 2008), 269-282, 272.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0  This story is recorded in the margins of a sixteenth-century book owned by J.G.R., and was also reported by William Prynne in Histrio-Matrix (1633). Both versions are reprinted in Doctor Faustus, ed. David Scott Kastan (New York: Norton, 2005), 181.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0  This phrase is borrowed from Yong Li Lan, “Shakespeare and the Fiction of the Intercultural,” in A Companion to Shakespeare and Performance, ed. Barbara Hodgdon and W.B. Worthen (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 527—549, 533.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0  For more on the differences between the 1604 and 1616 versions, see David Bevington, “Staging the A- and B-Texts of Doctor Faustus,” in Marlowe’s Empery: Expanding his Critical Contexts, ed. Sarah Munson Deats and Robert Logan (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002), 43-60.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0  For more on Ninagawa’s work and its place in the history of Japanese Shakespeare, see Arthur Horowtiz, Prospero’s “True Preservers”: Peter Brook, Yukio Ninagawa, and Giorgio Strehler (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 2004), 113-142, Andrea Nouryeh, “Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage,” in Foreign Shakespeares, ed. Dennis Kennedy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), 254-269.