Saturday, September 4, 2010

Throne of Blood at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

We went down to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland a couple of days ago. For those who don't know, despite the name this isn't a summer event sort of thing: it's a nearly year-round repertory organization that basically dominates this little town in Southern Oregon. Several plays running concurrently in three major venues, including a mock-up of the Globe. They do Shakespeare, yes, but also other works of classic and contemporary theater, and they do, on the whole, a fantastic job. We went down last summer and saw a couple (I seem to have neglected to write anything about them: if I can remember enough maybe I'll try to rectify that), and I have to say that with the sort of self-deprecating attitude with which Oregonians seem to view most things about their state, I wasn't expecting much. I came away incredibly impressed by the seriousness and professionalism of what I saw. So now we're trying to make an annual tradition out of going down for a night and seeing a couple of plays. Someday we want to stay a week and see everything...

The main attraction for us this year was Throne of Blood. This is OSF guest director Ping Chong's adaptation of Kurosawa's adaptation of Macbeth. Now, it so happens that this is one of my favorite Kurosawa films: I've lost count of how many times I've seen it. In fact, I've taught it twice, meaning I've gone through it taking scene-by-scene notes: I know it as well as I know any film. The idea of seeing a stage adaptation of it in English, at a festival where the Shakespearean aspects of it would doubtless be emphasized, was really intriguing. I wouldn't have missed this.

I was very disappointed.

Kurosawa's film transposes Shakespeare's story to warring-states-era Japan, turning Macbeth into a typical Sengoku warrior. Much has been made over the fact that Kurosawa gives us a Macbeth without any of Shakespeare's words - not too difficult, perhaps, given that he's making the film in Japanese, but in fact all the more amazing for that reason - he manages to bring the story to life with the same primal power of Shakespeare's version, without the benefit of the poetry.

It's also, I think, a definitively modern reading of Shakespeare, despite the medieval trappings, but that's a subject for another post. Here what's worth emphasizing is that Kurosawa only slightly modernizes the setting - we're still in an era of swords and battles and pikes and feudal loyalties. And Kurosawa adopts a quasi-premodern dramaturgy, as well, famously bringing in elements of Noh. The music (shrill flutes and drums) is the most obvious for a Western audience, but more important is the blocking: in several scenes, Washizu (Macbeth) and Asaji (Lady Macbeth) move just like Noh actors on a stage. My favorite example is Asaji's strange pacing while Washizu is killing his lord: it's virtually a kusemai, and it perfectly expresses her anxiety.

Between Shakespeare and the Noh, then, Kurosawa's film would seem to be a natural for translation to the stage. Certainly the transition would have posed problems as well: not just supplying the lack of Kurosawa's inimitable visuals, but coming up with a script. I was eager to see what they'd do in this regard: would they simply use Donald Richie's subtitles (or Linda Hoaglund's)? Would they come up with a new, complete translation of Kurosawa's script? Would they - and this was a tantalizing idea - adopt Shakespeare's lines whenever they could?

In short, I imagined all sorts of possibilities for bringing the profound seriousness of Kurosawa's vision to the stage, and maybe even combining it with the Shakespearean heritage that would have been more remote to him, but more accessible to the OSF's audience.

Instead what we got was, in a word, pandering. The script was a mishmash of untranslated Japanese phrases badly mouthed by actors who can't speak Japanese, inelegant dialogue modified (it seemed) from the subtitles, and overwrought pseudopoetic fill-ins both for things the subtitles didn't translate and for scenes that the director felt needed to be added. All of this was delivered in a staging that emphasized stereotypically Japanese elements without being true to a Noh vision, or any other; a staging that for most of the time used film projected on a strip of screen above the stage, in a move that seemed at first like a bold appropriation of cinematic elements but ended up feeling like a cop-out, as any difficult-to-stage elements were simply presented on film.

Lemme unpack that rant a bit. The overall tone of the production was Orientalist in the extreme. They made the decision to have the actors, who were with one key exception native speakers of English, deliver several of their lines in Japanese. Without subtitles (which they could have offered, using the ubiquitous screen - they in fact did subtitle the prerecorded chant that opened and closed the play), and often without precisely translating them in ensuing English dialogue. Of course they seldom did this so that you'd actually miss anything if you didn't speak Japanese - so the net effect was of a mild kind of alienation, so that the audience would feel something like they were watching a foreign film.

This in and of itself might not be a disastrous idea. I think I disagree fundamentally with the idea of foreignizing Throne of Blood rather than making it feel more intimate to the audience, of emphasizing the idea that this is something exotic rather than a valid and comprehensible modern take on universal ideas, but never mind that. If they'd been more consistent and persistent about providing the illusion that one was watching Kurosawa's film come to life, it might indeed have been interesting. Maybe dress all the actors and sets in black and white, maybe deliver even more of the lines in Japanese with subtitles, maybe... Lots could have been done.

But they didn't follow through. The Japanese phrases in the dialogue were left hanging there like little paper lanterns, just creating atmosphere; the set designs, while clearly meant to recall Kurosawa's, were neither barren enough to truly suggest Noh (or a black-and-white film) nor lively enough to really make the most of the chance to present this in color. Take the blood-stained walls of the sealed room, such a key setting in the early part of Kurosawa's film. In black and white, the blood stains is just another shade of gray on a gray wall - part of the effect was in showing us this rough-textured wooden wall and forcing us to imagine that part of this texture was blood. Very effective in black-and-white, and of course it could have been tremendously effective in color on a stage, too, giving us a huge crimson spatter for example. Instead this wall is represented by a mildly grubby standing screen. Neither fish nor fowl.

And the Noh elements - well, there were certainly nods toward the distinctive movements of the main characters in the film. But in the play these were mixed in with, and the Noh elements thoroughly drowned out by, random bits of kabuki, chanbara, and Takarazuka. Instead of the quiet intensity and unbearable tension of Noh-via-Kurosawa, we got a hodgepodge of colorful Japaneseness.

I have to mention the one Japanese cast member, the Takarazuka alumna Ako as Asaji. She was certainly the most fun to watch, with her melodramatic, heavily-accented delivery and her exaggerated movements. But the Takarazuka influence overwhelmed whatever delicacy might have remained in the adaptation: her high-camp approach, in fact, seemed to set the tone for the rest of the production, which included in-joke references to the titles of other Kurosawa movies, and the kind of clown repartee that Shakespeare's tragedies wisely include but which Kurosawa had carefully eliminated.

I almost wish they had done the whole thing as camp. Then it might have been something. What it was instead was pandering: they put gaijin actors in Japanese costume, then had them act "Japanese." They put a Japanese actress on and had her act super-Japanese. They gave themselves the safety-net of the screen, so that things like the march of the forest at the end could simply be projected - forget about using stage ingenuity to solve that problem. They filled in things that Kurosawa had chosen to leave blank: the whole bit about Macbeth hiring Murderers is left out, so that we don't know if Washizu has ordered the killing of Miki until after Washizu has seen Miki's ghost. But this version adds a clumsy scene before the banquet just to remove any doubt. Lame.

Just to make it clear: I'm not saying Shakespeare was lame to include such a scene. I'm saying that Shakespeare was a great artist who knew what he wanted to do and did it to great success. And so was Kurosawa. This play was neither, to its infinite detriment.

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