Friday, December 07, 2012


The Japan Foundation is one of those wonderful organisations with a London base that offers an extraordinary wealth of cultural opportunity, if only you know about it.  I happen to be on the mailing list, and have been chewing over the idea of looking at a Japanese project for a while.  I have an idea or two....  Anyway - on Tuesday I went along to a talk by the playwright Hideto Iwai, who is also the director of the company hi-bye.  And it was extraordinary.

For one thing, the work, which was shown in DVD extracts, is clearly wonderful.  Iwai plays with the farce lying latent in serious subjects.  I was especially excited by his recent play A Certain Woman, which deals with serial infidelity in the age of the text message.  Although there was a sort of heightened realism in the piece, Iwai himself played the central (female) role - a sort of nod to the Onnagata tradition, I suppose.

Indeed, Iwai appears in all his own work, as well as directing and writing the plays.  In his first piece,  Hikky Cancun Tornado, the central character is based on himself.  It could all sound totally egomanaiacal - were it not for the fact that he is the shyest, most retiring of people.  In fact, from the ages of 15 to 20, he never left his house, because he was so worried that he would get something 'wrong' in the public space.  In Japan, this condition, which I guess has similarities to agoraphobia or certain forms of anorexia, is known as hikikomori.  It effects young men predominantly, and is very widespread in that most regimented, most conformist of cultures.  

Listening to this witty, perceptive and modest man, I found myself musing about how many people involved in the theatre, which is generally perceived as a space for "showing off", are actually very shy and self-conscious.  But then, perhaps extreme shyness and egomania are not actually opposites.  After all, both involve the feeling that everybody else is looking at you.  Perhaps the reason so many shy people are drawn to theatre is that it provides a safe place for public exposure - a space where the staring and the prurience is actually the point.  And so it becomes a safety valve.  

The other thing I've been meaning to talk about on this blog for a while is the RSC's production of The Orphan of Zhao.  I realise I'm behind the times in media terms, but I also know that the East Asian artists who have been protesting about this piece want to keep the momentum going, with a meeting planned for the Young Vic in February, no less.  I went along to a discussion, which you can watch on YouTube here - and very informative it was too.  The press has been tending to treat the controversy as if it's just about East Asian actors wanting to play the Chinese roles - and that is part of it, but only a small part.  After all, it was fine for the National Theatre of China to perform in the Globe to Globe Festival, and to present Shakespeare with an all-Chinese cast.  But what was different about that Richard III was that it was presented as a play ABOUT China, with Chinese influence in the designs and acting style.  It was not presented as a comment on Britain.  The Orphan of Zhao, on the other hand, is being presented by a British company, with an almost entirely white cast, as a comment on China.  The setting and costumes are "Chinese".  The discourse around the production talks about a "brutal, feudal society".  We're just a few steps from Ming the Merciless.  

So this is Border Crossings' statement of solidarity with the East Asian actors of this country.  We cannot go on making theatre which exoticises and distances people with whom we now share global space, economic space, cultural space, even our own nation space.  We have to enter into real and meaningful dialogues of equals.  That's actually something theatre can do really well - but not when you present other cultures as Other.  

All very useful thoughts as we move towards our next co-production with a company from (yes) China.....

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