Konan W.U. students mark 50 years of Shakespeare in English

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on March 31 2015.

In 1964, the late Polish theater scholar Jan Kott wrote “Shakespeare, Our Contemporary,” an influential book that questioned the processes of producing Shakespeare in the here and now and whether the Bard’s texts should serve as clues for an archeological dig to recover something of their original history — or as conduits that channel concerns specific to a present time, place and people.

In the winter of 1966, a group of students gathered in a cold classroom in Kobe to grapple with similar questions and more. They were rehearsing “As You Like It,” the first in an unbroken line of annual Shakespeare productions performed in English by undergraduates at Konan Women’s University.

Student-led ensemble productions in English-literature departments were not uncommon in postwar Japan. Shakespeare was still widely seen as being at the epicenter of the Western literary canon, and academic institutions took pride in tackling the perceived complexity of his works — or what the leading 17th-century English poet John Dryden famously called his “innate greatness.”

At the same time, Japanese universities in the 1960s were home to many independent student drama groups whose shōgekijyō (small-scale theater) movement was part of a radical counterculture flourishing then.

That drama movement — with Hideki Noda, the current artistic director of Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in the vanguard — was opposed to the dominant cultural codes of the day, particularly the naturalist Western-style shingeki theater.

In addition, it was a hotbed for experimentation with form and identity, favoring imagination over realism and accessibility over edification.

Where did Shakespeare stand in this shifting landscape, and where is he today? What merits are there in staging Shakespeare plays in English as a second language? And is it merely an exercise in repeating old cultural codes, or is there something else at play — something more radical?

In talking to Konan alumni from past productions, and in working there — as a member of the English-language and culture faculty — with current students on their 50th annual English-language play, “Macbeth,” the picture that has emerged is of a deeply transformative experience on different levels.

In 1967, Hisayo Kitani played Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.” She remembers the three-month rehearsal period being an uphill struggle, saying, “There was no blueprint for putting the play together and none of us had ever been to England, let alone seen any English drama. But with help from our teachers and through our collective dedication, we pulled through and we were all stronger for it.”

For Kitani, a key part of the acting process was learning to listen.

“Characters speak to each other,” she explained, “they have real conversations on stage and that means people have to listen. The energy, focus and commitment involved in that listening process is a fundamental learning tool.”

Of course, listening goes hand in hand with speaking the lines, and Mieko Shirakabe, who played Horatio in Konan’s 1981 production of “Hamlet,” remembers well the intense pressure around line-learning.

“My mother was hospitalized at that time, so morning and night I had to take care of things at home,” she recalled. “I wrote Horatio’s lines on strips of paper and pinned them to my bedroom wall, desperately trying to learn them between chores. If you didn’t know your lines, you couldn’t begin to act. But in rehearsals, some students would forget or would be behind. That made me angry, and on several occasions I confronted them about it!”

Working with students in rehearsals for “Macbeth” over the past two months it has been moving to see them overcome initial linguistic barriers and begin to identify with their character’s role and engage with the play’s key problems.

Iyori Nakaoka, the student director this year, said that her image of Shakespeare prior to the production had been of an entanglement of characters and situations that felt impenetrable, but on working through the scenes she had begun to tease out strands of potential, such as exploring Macbeth’s many facets. “Macbeth, the character Shakespeare created, is a way of looking at the world, at the choices we make and the influences we are subject to — but ultimately, he is accountable for those choices.”

Similarly, the actress playing Lady Macbeth, Rina Hyoda, had much to say about her relationship with the character.

“She uses seduction as a means of climbing the ranks of power, and I find it hard to play the character because I am not like her, I am not aggressive or violent,” Hyoda said. “Perhaps, if I wanted to reach the top of a company, I would have to be much more assertive, but in working on this play I have learned the value of collaboration and teamwork — and that’s precisely what Lady Macbeth does not appreciate.”

What mattered for the Polish scholar Jan Kott back in 1964 was that, as he wrote in his seminal work, “through Shakespeare’s text, we ought to get at our modern experience, anxiety and sensibility.”

For students at Konan Women’s University, despite the difficulties and pressures of this ensemble work, Shakespeare as a cultural experience is still very much alive and in some cases is radically transformative.

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