Voices of Syria's war haunt Tokyo stage

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on Oct 30 2013.

The war in Syria has been making headlines for more than two years now, but it’s made very little impact on the theater world in Japan. Next month, though, that’s set to change with the Tokyo staging of “The Fear of Breathing,” a hard-hitting British documentary drama about that ongoing multi-pronged conflict.

To be staged at the Akasaka Red Theater by director Toshinobu Kojo and Tokyo-based One Two Works, a company he founded in 2009 following on from previous stage work that began in 1986, the play — translated into Japanese and with leading actors Nagare Hagiwara and Yoji Matsuda in the central roles — is based on verbatim transcripts of interviews with people across Syria’s social and political divides.

Toshinobu Kojo.

Among them, we encounter leaders in the Free Syrian Army, supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, a doctor, a DJ, a grieving mother and a range of political activists. Each person bears witness to their personal experience of war, together contributing to a mosaic that purposely negates a single dominant viewpoint.

The material for the play was collected covertly inside Syria by its director, Zoe Lafferty, and two award-winning British journalists, the BBC’s Paul Wood and Ruth Sherlock, a young foreign correspondent with The Daily Telegraph. Defying bans on foreign reporters, the trio sought out stories that would put a human face on a conflict increasingly entangled in international rhetoric. Lafferty’s production at the Finborough Theatre in London in July 2012 was met with critical acclaim.

Despite the dearth of documentary plays in Japan, Kojo, 54, is passionate about the genre. After visiting Britain at a time when verbatim theater was enjoying a revival, in 2006 he produced a version of Robin Soans’ award-winning “The Arab-Israeli Cookbook” in Japanese. The next year, his company created “The Place Nobody Knows,” an original documentary about suicide in Japan.

Curious to find out more about Kojo’s thinking and approach to both documentary theater and the Syrian war, I put a series of questions to the director, and what follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

When and where did you first encounter documentary theater?

In July 2004, I chaired a symposium in Tokyo celebrating the 50th anniversary of the city’s Haiyuza Theatre. The renowned British theater director Max Stafford-Clark was invited to give a speech on documentary theater. That was the first I’d heard about it.

When I was younger I used to be a theater journalist, so I was immediately attracted to the idea of journalism-based theater, and it prompted me to travel to England in 2005 thanks to a government scholarship. There, I was able to attend Max Stafford-Clark’s rehearsals for Robin Soans’ documentary play “Talking To Terrorists.”

Why did you choose to produce a play about the war in Syria?

Because it’s happening right now. Also, attempts at finding a solution are increasingly complicated within the current geopolitical power structure. Even as we speak, citizens area being forced to flee their homes and are being killed. I feel angry about this situation and frustrated at not being able to do anything.

At the very least, I can convey something of the situation through theater.

The power of theater lies in the actors’ bodies on stage. Within this fictional frame, audiences are able to use their imagination and it’s easier to identify with the issues as opposed to say, watching them on the news.

It’s often said that Japanese people take peace for granted. I totally agree with that view. The current government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is certainly shifting to the right and I am worried about the proposed expansion of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the introduction of a new state secrecy law.

The problem with taking peace for granted is that, once it is lost, we have no idea how difficult it is to get it back. This play on the Syrian war is a strong reminder of that.

What were the main challenges working on a documentary play in translation and with an all-Japanese cast?

Documentary theater aside, any translation faces problems of incongruity, since we have a different language and socio-cultural background. However, in this piece I think “distance” is the biggest obstacle.

Japanese people have heard about what is happening in Syria through the news, but many people see it as simply someone else’s problem. Distance creates a barrier to empathy. Therefore, relatively few people will come and pay to see this play describing a distant conflict. At the same time, I still need to convey the fact that people are killing each other on this planet.

I believe the basic function of theater is to describe the human condition. In the case of documentary theater, the play consists of words recorded through interviews with people living on this planet right now. For me, those words are very valuable; they have a profound meaning and they are a reflection of humanity.

What do you hope Japanese audiences will take away from your production?

I hope they come to the theater not to attend a lecture on Syrian politics, but to hear the voices of people who’ve lost parents and who desperately seek freedom.

Cover image: production poster for “The Fear of Breathing” by Akasaka Red Theatre.

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