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Inversion and Translation: Twelfth Night Kabuki-style

Review Author: Telka Duxbury [mail]
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Production: Twelfth Night in RAKUJUKU KABUKI (2013, Ryuzanji Company, Canada)
Review date: 13 November, 2013

At the Internet Shakespeare Editions, we take great pride in the worldwide network of Shakespeare lovers that we have built over the years, and we never tire of seeing just how many ways the Bard’s genius gets translated and repackaged. So, when Miyuki Sakaguichi, performer and social media coordinator from Ryuzanji–a Japanese-based independent company for senior actors–invited the ISE team to see their Rakujuku Kabuki-style adaptation of Twelfth Night at the annual Victoria Fringe Festival, the ISE team hit the Metro Theatre to catch this must-see production.

Twelfth Night Kabuki-style

Twelfth Night Kabuki-style

Dating back four centuries, Kabuki is a popular Japanese theatrical convention that uses song and dance to produce highly-stylized, richly staged dramas. The troop–with an average age of 61–produces an intelligent and complex adaptation of Twelfth Night that revels in themes of inversion and translation.

Set in imperial Japan and performed in Japanese with English surtitles, the production is gleefully aware of its convolutions and transpositions. True to the Rakujuku form (Rakujuku loosely translates as “having fun troupe”), the players capitalize on the dramatic irony inherent in the romantic sub-plots. Like traditional Renaissance theatre, all-male casts perform conventional Kabuki; however, Ryuzanji turns the table on gender by featuring an almost exclusively female cast.

This inverted Kabuki form intensifies the already complex gender roles explored throughout Twelfth Night. While the heteronormative male characters (Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Malvolio) are played by women, Antonio is played by the only male actor in the cast, Takuhei Kozu, which amplifies the character’s implied homosexuality, as he openly devotes himself to Sebastian (Mitsue Naito) and humorously plots for them to run away together. Duke Orsino (played by female actress, Izumi Murata), on the other hand, fully embodies the authoritarian male stereotype in his relentless pursuit of Lady Olivia (Kazuko Kawamoto) despite her impassioned rejections.

Antonio and an Officer

Lady Viola’s (Yuko Sekiguchi’s) double gender inversion (a female actor playing a female character in a male disguise) generates metatheatrical moments in which the audience contemplates the comedic (and perhaps social) implications of Lady Olivia’s infatuation with Cesario (or rather, Lady Viola). By choosing to marry for love, rather than money, Lady Olivia undermines the vulnerability and docility characteristic of women in early modern London and Imperial Japan. Her autonomy, however, is attenuated by the comedic implications of her infatuation. Onstage, Lady Olivia’s bold pursuit and aggressive seduction of Cesario depicts her as an older woman with a sexual appetite for a younger man. Knowing, however, that Cesario is actually Lady Viola–and that Lady Viola is played by a female actor–the performance challenges assumptions of female sexuality. While the script itself determines the romantic fate of this foil, the sexual implications of these gender inversions undermine cultural stereotypes and presents a political message normalizing taboo topics such as transvestism and homosexuality.

Despite the intercultural metatheatrics, the Japanese aesthetic informed all aspects of the production. Traditional Japanese cultural items like fans lent themselves to the play’s actions and added symbolism to dialogue and soliloquy. When Lady Olivia authors a love-letter to Cesario on her fan, for example, the feminine prop transforms into an emblem of autonomy. The exquisite design and structure of the kimonos worn on stage provided not only a stunning contrast to the minimalist set design, but also emphasized the gender inversions and challenged cultural assumptions.

Malvolio's Yellow Stockings Transformed

Malvolio’s Yellow Stockings Transformed

In contrast, the in-text costume cues provided directorial challenges. Director Show Ryuzanji transforms Malvolio’s (Aya Meguro) yellow stockings into a particularly ostentatious gold crown and a gold loincloth, though the cultural significance was never quite explained.

Ari Miyagawa and Emi Takemura’s choreography accentuated the Japanese aesthetic with movement. In the production’s best musical scene, the cast, meticulously arranged in tight rows, synchronously pivots around the stage with military precision in clockwise and counterclockwise fashion. In another memorable moment, Malvolio (Marui Sandayu), falsely accused of madness, executes sumo-style movements as he prays from his cell. The ceremonious lumbering does not temper the tenderness of Malvolio’s romantic confession. In fact, the purification ritual underlying the movements of this popular sport intensifies Malvolio’s vulnerability in this scene.

Kimonos Worn Onstage

Kimonos Worn Onstage

Decoding Shakespeare through a transnational lense, Ryuzanji embraces themes of translation. The surtitles functioned sometimes as English-as-an-additional-language translations, but also sometimes as metatheatrical cues. Cesario’s soliloquies, for example, were not translated on screen, but rather, were framed as another indulgent “monologue.” Similarly, anachronistic allusions to Western pop icons (such as Avril Lavigne) and local toponyms (such as The Empress) flattered and delighted the local Fringe audience. Paralleling Baz Luhrmann, the musical segments integral to Kabuki theatre provided playful intercultural and intergenerational accessions to the script.

As digital editors of Shakespeare, we perceived the metatheatrical moments as opening and closing tags. Like the metadata we use to render, interpret, and display Shakespeare’s works, Ryuzanji uses translation and inversion as devices to subvert theatrical conventions, such as surtitles, to explore cultural codes, such as gender performativity. These moments occupy a dual position in the performance: they express formal elements intrinsic to the text (and the stage), yet they also contain meaning independent from it.

In a play so conscious of its own playfulness, this witty and insightful adaptation of Twelfth Night promises to get you laughing–and thinking.

(This review is co-authored by Assistant Coordinating Editor Dr. Janelle Jenstad and Research Assistants Telka Duxbury and Quinn MacDonald)

Permanent link to full entry 03:10:51 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

A Twelfth Night to Remember: RSC, 2009

Review Author: Hugh M. Richmond
Production: Twelfth Night (2009, Royal Shakespeare Company, GB)
Review date: 18 February, 2010

The key concept of this production by the RSC in 2009 (Duke of York’s Theatre, London) appears in the program notes about the play’s setting in Illyria: “a place of lyrical delirium” but also “in Shakespeare’s day a very real country. Illyria was a wild corner of the Ottoman Empire, on the shores of the Adriatic, notable for its pirates and for the frequent shipwrecks along its rugged coastline. . . . It roughly equates with modern day Albania. Shakespeare exploits the country’s unruly, dangerous and exotic reputation.” Moreover, “Shakespeare peppers the play with references, not only to pirates and renegades, but to the eunuchs and mutes employed at the Ottoman court, and the Sophy (or Shah) of neighbouring Persia.” The set, costuming, social structure, and manners throughout the performance reflected this cultural context with an even more specific dating determined by the region’s relationship to the eighteenth century’s delight in the Grand Tour: “Sebastian seems the very epitome of a young man on the Grand Tour: ‘I pray you, let us satisfy our eyes with the memorials and things of fame that do renown this city.’ ” One last touch of contextualization appeared in the program’s stress on the swashbuckling revolutionary career of the poet Byron in the region, which transposed neatly into a view of Orsino as a kind of hectic Byronic hero. The permanent set reflected that transitional period also: a semi-ruined neoclassical vestige of the Venetian empire in the Levant, with a rear wall in warm stone, with a broken pillar at stage-right. The frequent music echoed Middle Eastern pitch, rhythms, and orchestration.

The effect of this carefully-thought-out contextualization was surprisingly impressive, and plausibly validated the multicultural casting obligatory on the current stage: for not only were many of the supporting cast (servants, standers-by) Levantine in costume, complexion, and ethnic derivation, but so too were parts as important as Maria’s, which added a fascinating tension to her relationships with Sir Toby Belch and Malvolio. Interestingly enough, Toby was presented by Richard McCabe quite severely (as often nowadays) not merely as a drunkard but as actively malevolent to most of his associates, while Malvolio (again fashionably) became a figure of some overt sympathy in Richard Wilson’s interpretation, to the extent that the audience murmured sympathetically at his misapprehensions in the face of the gloating of Toby and his allies. In the end there was general satisfaction that Toby got his deserved beating at the hands of Sebastian, and at the sight of the final flight of the humiliated Aguecheek. Both Feste and Fabian were also presented as sympathetic Levantines, the former in particular, enacted by Milros Yerolemou, appeared less as a conventional clown than a complex personality, for example, in his increasing anxiety over the maltreatment of Malvolio, and by his exquisite and moving performance of his songs .

None of these factors bore directly on the crucial impact of the two principal roles of Viola and Olivia, which must be the decisive elements in any production’s success. In this case both were distinctive and memorable. Many recent productions of Shakespeare have shown a decline in rhetorical skills and mastery of verse-cadencing. With both these roles the phrasing was definitive: clear, well-nuanced, and plausible. Viola was presented by Nancy Carroll with a remarkable poise and lucidity. She had a unique naturalness and authority of interpretation which made her complex role not merely intelligible but irresistibly attractive. While she was delightfully convincing while playing a boy, there was none of the overacting of adolescent awkwardness which the part often evokes, and she achieved the final transition to an openly feminine temperament in a compelling manner. As Olivia Alexandra Gilbreath was remarkably dynamic in a role which often sinks to mere volatility. The portrayal of her self-conscious surrender to sexual attraction lent an element of humor to a role too often merely sentimental, not to say pathetic. Like all the other performers neither of these actors sank to shrillness or overplaying. Indeed, this production was hardly ever farcical - except, perhaps inevitably, in the scene of Malvolio’s overhearing, which balanced three actors precariously in a treetop. If anything the director avoided even open comedy in a performance often verging on Chekhovian irony.
At many moments this thoughtful naturalism freshly illuminated the script, perhaps most with the role of Maria, whose relationship with Toby gained from the added interracial factor, as well as stressing Malvolio’s domineering attitude. It was interesting to see that she was not present at the deception of Malvolio, which detached her from its uproarious male chorus. Another role which gained in authenticity was Sebastian’s companion Antonio, whose compulsive commitment to his young friend greatly enriched the sense of his tension as an enemy alien in Illyria. Sebastian, for once, really looked like Viola, who appeared to be consciously copying her brother in exact costume and manner as a kind of compulsive attempt at his reincarnation. Perhaps the program note that the director himself has a twin sister explained this thoughtful exploration of the nature of twinship.

In conclusion one can only say that for once in a Shakespearean production one did not feel the intrusion of irrelevant directorial concepts, but that one was given access to the essential nature of the script. The setting and costumes matched details in the text, and the interpretations throughout reflected a trust that Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing at all times for staging, and did not need directorial intrusions to be made accessible to a modern audience, which in this case earned the production the intense attention it deserves. This was one of the best productions of the play I have seen in sixty years of viewing Shakespeare.

Permanent link to full entry 04:16:54 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  


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