At the end of last month news came through the grapevine that the Romanian theater icon Silviu Purcarete had finally arrived in Japan to direct a version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre (TMET) ahead of it going on a nationwide tour.
Up till then, it seemed travel restrictions due to the pandemic would force the world-renowned director to prepare and rehearse this work by video links from his home in Paris — so his appearance here was a really delightful surprise.
Now aged 70, Purcarete has been wowing audiences around the world for almost 40 years with his spectacularly visual, fantastical and often mysteriously grotesque stagings of classics including Greek tragedies, works by William Shakespeare, and a renowned 2007 take on Goethe’s “Faust” with the Radu Stanka National Theater of Romania in Sibiu.
In Japan, too, he has won legions of followers through his Radu Stanka productions at TMET in Ikebukuro in 2013 and 2015.
Then, stemming from those interactions between the Romanian dramatist and Hideki Noda — the playwright, director and actor who is TMET’s artistic director — in 2017 an all-Japanese cast directed by Purcarete, with Romanian set and costume designers, created a marvelous version of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” there that was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike.
Referring to that in a recent Zoom conversation from the Tokyo hotel room where he was confined for two weeks’ quarantine, Purcarete said, “Because that ‘Richard III’ collaboration was so special, I expected to have a great time again. Instead, this new style of working through the Internet is a real problem and extremely bizarre.
“It is so difficult to work remotely in this way. In fact it’s almost impossible.”
Even with his vast experience, the director appeared almost stumped, saying, “You can do some kinds of work this way, but when you need organic contact with the actors, it’s very difficult.
“I get inspired by the actors, so I always have a living relationship with them. I just have to propose what my vision is and they have to try to do it. But there isn’t any artistic dialogue this way; no artistic transmission.
“This is a very artificial way of making theater. We cannot do theater creation through the Internet … [and] if this is the future, then I think it’s better to stop doing theater.”
Despite that, Purcarete still looked on a brighter side, saying, “Right now it’s the same as if I was in Paris. However, I hope to have five days in the theater soon. It’s the only advantage of undergoing this quarantine, because I believe that time working in the rehearsal room and in the theater will be helpful.”
In his long and glittering career, Purcarete has directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” several times, including a large-scale production at the 20th Gdansk Shakespeare Festival in Poland with Russian actors that was extremely well received in 2016.
But this time it’s actually a whole different challenge. That’s because he is not working from Shakespeare’s text that he knows so well, but from a radical adaptation of the play written by his host at TMET, Hideki Noda.
“It is very exciting because it’s a completely new way of seeing things,” the director enthuses. “The plot starts like Shakespeare’s, but it develops differently. I could say it’s a completely new play, but it has some quotations from the original.
“However, Noda’s text is full of word-play and very Japanese references, and obscenities that are specifically Japanese, and I can’t deal with all that at all.”
This version of Shakespeare’s comic 1596 tale of four bewitched lovers actually premiered in 1992. Opening in a long-established Japanese restaurant, it starts with Tokitamago, the intended heiress of the business (played this time by Kie Kitano), being forced by her father to marry the cook, Demi (Masaki Kaji).
However, Tokitamago is in love with a young man named Rye (Hiroshi Yazaki), and they run off together to the forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji … with Demi in pursuit. But Soboro (Anne Suzuki), who loves Demi, chases after them in a bid to attract his attention — in the process discovering dark aspects of her inner self.
Then a character called Mephistopheles (Tomohiko Imai) appears and steals the magical means by which the fairy Puck (Toru Tezuka) was meant to bring the two pairs of real lovers together — and chaos ensues.
“In this version, there is no play within a play that forms the climax at the end of Shakespeare’s work,” Purcarete says. “Also, there is that very important extra character Mephistopheles, who is not in the original but who plays a key role here.
“But as I said, all the Japanese flavors in Noda’s story were so strange for me, so I tried to avoid them. Instead, I took it as a universal story. I see it as a false fairytale. It’s not just a fairytale for children with silliness and comedy. There is something grim and murky that speaks about a human’s soul, a human’s inside; adult places that are bizarre and mysterious.
“I think Noda’s play is very much influenced by Sigmund Freud and the world of psychiatry in the way it explores the subconscious. So we have the main character, Soboro, delivering insightful monologues exposing her dreams and fantasies and sometimes very dark and odd ideas.”
To create this scary world, Purcarete says he is starting by bringing a vision of the gloomy backyard of a restaurant onto the stage: “Something more like Akira Kurosawa’s 1970 movie ‘Dodes’ka-den’ about the lives of Tokyo slum-dwellers than ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.’ So it’s not sparkling, not Disney-taste visuals.”
Then, when I asked him about his vision for the future of theater itself, he firmly, but coolly, said, “I don’t think Zoom direction is really theater. For myself, it’s very simple because I am old enough to stop at any time. But it’s very sad and tragic for the younger generation.
“I don’t think theater can do so many things. I don’t think it can change humanity or human beings. It is a beautiful activity and its spirit is a form of poetry. But it addresses a few people, not many people. Its influence is like homeopathy in the way it works in very delicate, subtle ways.”
Such subtleties, though, appeared lost on the director just then, as he declared, “Right now I need to finish creating this play! That’s what I want to do. That’s my sole purpose, and probably everyone else’s at TMET too.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs Oct. 15–Nov. 1 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre outside JR Ikebukuro Station. It then tours to Niigata City, Matsumoto (Nagano Prefecture), Nishinomiya (Hyogo), Sapporo, and Shibata-gun (Miyagi) till Dec. 5. For details, call TMET at 0570-010-296 or visit www.midsummer-nights-dream.com.