Category Archives: Commentary

JAPAN: ‘YABUHARA KENGYO’ SHOWS AUDIENCES THAT JUSTICE ISN’T ALWAYS BLIND ·

(Nobuko Tanaka’s article appeared in the Japan Times, 2/18; Photo: Playing the bad guy: Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ennosuke IV plays Suginoichi, a blind musician who kills and cheats to get ahead but ultimately meets a gruesome end, in the play “Yabuhara Kengyo.” | © KATSUMI MINAMOTO.)

Colorful graffiti marks the facade of a shuttered shopping mall. People navigate their way around chain partitions and orange traffic cones. It’s a scene that looks familiar to anyone who has walked through the streets of Shibuya recently.

And yet, while the backdrop is modern, the characters in “Yabuhara Kengyo” (“Yabuhara, the Blind Master Minstrel”) are rooted in the Edo Period (1603-1868), wearing kimono and living according to the law of the shogun. The play’s protagonist, a blind musician named Suginoichi who has risen from being a penniless minstrel to becoming the highest-ranked performer in the shogun’s court, is played by Ichikawa Ennosuke IV, a member of the venerable Ichikawa kabuki family whose real name is Takahiko Kinoshi.

Ennosuke may be recognizable to some for his recent role as an elite banker and rival to the titular hero of TV’s hit drama series, “Hanzawa Naoki.” But for many others, the 45-year-old actor is a standard-bearer for the Japanese stage who has been pumping life into traditional and modern theater since well before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the entertainment industry.

On the day we met for the interview, Ennosuke had already performed in a classical matinee program at the Kabukiza Theatre before moving to a studio to rehearse his role as Suginoichi, the cunning antihero of “Yabuhara Kengyo,” which opened on Feb. 10 and will run through Mar. 7 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya.

In the play, Suginoichi’s ascent from penniless minstrel to master performer is all the more remarkable because not only is he arrogant and averse to studying or practicing music, he is also a thief, rapist and murderer who slayed his first teacher, among others, to get ahead.

Although another blind performer, Hokiichi (played by Ken Miyake, who tackles five additional roles in this production), advises Suginoichi to keep a low profile because his blindness puts him at risk of being victimized, he pays no heed to the warning and continues to live according to his whims.

Meanwhile, discontent grows in society, and the shogun’s adviser asks Hokiichi how to quell the unrest. The minstrel suggests publicly punishing someone slothful as a scapegoat, adding that someone like Suginoichi could be accused of murder and bear a cruel sentence. Following Hokiichi’s counsel, the adviser puts Suginoichi to death in a manner that is painful and gruesome.

This picaresque play, written by notable postwar playwright Hisashi Inoue, premiered in 1973 under the direction of Koichi Kimura. A success from the outset, the show was repeatedly rerun in Japan and went on tour to Hong Kong, New York, London, Paris and Edinburgh. The production was then followed by lavish and energetic costume-drama versions staged by Yukio Ninagawa in 2007 and Tamiya Kuriyama in 2012 and 2014.

To direct the most recent iteration, which is part of a special series marking the theater’s reopening after a major refurbishment, Parco appointed Kunio Sugihara. Widely admired for his bold direction in works such as the rap-style Greek tragedy “Oedipus REXXX” and his 10-hour trilogy “The Greeks,” the 38-year-old dramatist has also worked on various “Super Kabuki” shows, a style of theater that combines traditional kabuki style with contemporary themes and media such as manga.

Ennosuke has been a driving force behind “Super Kabuki” for years, and in 2015, he chose Sugihara to be his assistant director on “One Piece,” an entertainment-focused production based on the titular manga series by Eiichiro Oda. Since then, the pair have often collaborated together, but this time it’s Sugihara in the driver’s seat.

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https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2021/02/18/stage/yabuhara-kengyo/

SAMUEL BECKETT’S ‘HAPPY DAYS’ IS TURNING 60. ITS IMAGE OF A TRAPPED WOMAN IS AS POTENT AS EVER ·

(Claire Thomas’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/22.)

I first saw Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in 2009. I remember the barren stage and the entombed woman at its centre, whose utterances filled the theatre and carried the content of the play.

Happy Days – which turns 60 this year – has a stunning and simple premise: a woman, Winnie, is buried in a mound of earth. She remains trapped for the play’s duration, grappling with her predicament as a relentless sun beats down on her. Winnie is in possession of a bag full of everyday items (and a gun) that offer her some distraction. A man, Willie, occasionally crawls out from behind the mound of earth to mutter something in Winnie’s direction, but she is mostly alone.

At the Malthouse, Winnie was played by Julie Forsyth, whose performance enthralled me: her pliable face poking out of the ground; her squeaky yet powerful voice talking, talking, talking. There was Willie too, but Winnie was the fascination. As the late British theatre critic John Peter writes, “Only Beckett could have written this play: a hilarious account of extinction, a short sonata for the dead, scored for female voice and male mumble.”

My novel, The Performance, takes place inside a theatre during a staging of Happy Days. It begins as the audience shuffles into seats and it ends as the curtain falls. My main characters – three women of different ages and backgrounds – watch the play and consider their own lives. A bushfire emergency is developing in real time on the outskirts of the city, beyond the theatre’s air-conditioned bubble.

I never forgot the perfect simplicity of the image of the trapped woman, and its many connotations. The play’s formal austerity offered my novel a useful structural device to contain the swirling thoughts I wanted for my characters. The range of subjects covered by Winnie also allowed me to extract whatever words most resonated for my women, triggering their thoughts and memories.

Like much of Beckett’s work, Happy Days is defined by both its expansiveness and its specificity. It is interested in the nature of humanity, and in the minutiae of the quotidian. It is perhaps most interested in the intersection between the two. This is also the stuff of novels. How does a character make their way through any moment in time, in body, in soul?

This question of scale – what to care about and how; what to notice or ignore; how tightly to focus one’s attention – is a key quandary of life, quite beyond the making of art. As Winnie endures the long hours of her days inside a dying earth, she busies herself with personal grooming and the consolations of remembered literature. Whether her hopefulness is delusional madness or in fact a necessary aspect of survival is one of the play’s many ambiguities. It also offers a strong resonance to our contemporary response to the climate crisis.

In 1979, Beckett directed Happy Days at the Royal Court, London. Winnie was played by his beloved collaborator, Billie Whitelaw. In Beckett’s Production Notebook from this period, he offers Whitelaw precise choreography for Winnie’s gestures, as well as instructions around prop management, vocal tone and staging details.

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ATTEND THE TALE OF ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE,’ THEN AND NOW ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/19; via Pam Green; Photo:  From left, Maria Friedman, John Owen Edwards, John Yap and Stephen Sondheim working on the recording of “Anyone Can Whistle” at Abbey Road Studios in 2013.Credit…Doug Craib, via JAY Records.)

A sparkling new recording of the 1964 musical makes half the case for Stephen Sondheim’s endlessly inventive score.

A new recording of “Anyone Can Whistle,” the 1964 musical by Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, has for decades been on the wish lists of Broadway cultists and completists. Now that their wish has been granted — a complete studio version from the English label Jay Records was released in December — I think they’ll find that new isn’t always enough.

Which is not to say it isn’t vastly welcome. The original cast album from Columbia Records, though better than you might expect from a one-week flop, is less than ideal. Sondheim’s endlessly inventive score was heavily truncated, and the singers, who recorded it on the Sunday morning after the closing on a Saturday night, sound exhausted. Bungles abound. Despite lovely moments, that disc (now available on Masterworks Broadway) comes off less as a living record of the show than as a hasty, sketchy post-mortem.

Maybe that was apt. The disaster that opened at the Majestic Theater on April 4, 1964, had already been in florid trouble out of town. One actor had a heart attack during a Philadelphia performance; a dancer caused a heart attack when she flew off the stage, into the pit and onto a saxophone player. Everyone else was left to squabble and panic. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when “Whistle” eventually got to Broadway, in a season otherwise notable for “Hello, Dolly!” and “Funny Girl,” it struck many theatergoers as chaotic and alienating.

Chaotic it still is. Laurents’s satirical book, though clever and novel, works too hard at too many things, aiming darts at every -ism in its path: conformism, evangelism and cronyism among them. The gangly plot, involving a venal mayoress faking a miracle (Angela Lansbury in the original production), a repressed nurse with a French alter ego (Lee Remick) and a psychiatrist who’s actually a psychiatric patient (Harry Guardino), seems to be held together by spit and sarcasm.

But it wasn’t just the complicated book; audiences weren’t yet ready for the complications of Sondheim. Despite his score for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — a hit that was still running after two years on Broadway — he was mostly pegged as a lyricist, and his music for “Whistle” did not go over well. In The Times, Howard Taubman allowed that some songs were pleasing, “but not enough of them.” Another critic called the music, inaccurately, atonal.

Despite such judgments, several songs from “Whistle” — including “A Parade in Town,” “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” “With So Little to Be Sure Of” and the title song — are now widely performed. Smallish revivals over the years, and a starry Encores! presentation in 2010, demonstrated that much of the show could be redeemed by its score.

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JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIÈRE, 89, DIES; PROLIFIC WRITER OF SCREENPLAYS AND MORE ·

(Neil Genzlinger’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/11; Photo: Jean-Claude Carrière in 1999. He had more than 150 film and television writing credits and also wrote books and plays.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

He was a favorite of Luis Buñuel and other top filmmakers. He also had a fruitful collaboration with the stage director Peter Brook.

Jean-Claude Carrière, an author, playwright and screenwriter who collaborated with the director Luis Buñuel on a string of important films and went on to work on scores of other movies, among them Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988), died on Monday at his home in Paris. He was 89.

The death was confirmed by his daughter Kiara Carrière. No cause was given.

Mr. Carrière had barely started in the movie business when he met Buñuel, the Spanish-born director, in 1963 (although he had already won a short-subject Oscar for a 1962 comedy he made with Pierre Étaix, “Happy Anniversary”).

“At the time, he was looking for a young French screenwriter who knew the French countryside well,” Mr. Carrière recalled in a 1983 interview with the writer Jason Weiss.

“I was a beginner,” he said. “I had gone to Cannes, and he was seeing various screenwriters there. I had lunch with him, we got along well, and three weeks later he chose me and I left for Madrid. Since then I haven’t stopped.”

His first project with Buñuel was “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964), for which the two adapted the Octave Mirbeau novel of the same name. Mr. Carrière continued to work with Buñuel for the rest of the director’s career, including on his last feature, “That Obscure Object of Desire,” in 1977. (Buñuel died in 1983.)

“Quite often the screenwriter has to guess what exactly the film is that the director wants to make,” Mr. Carrière told Interview magazine in 2015. “Sometimes the director doesn’t even know himself. You have to help him find the right thing. That was the case with Buñuel. At the beginning, he was looking around in many different directions, and finally when we went the right way, we felt it.”

Mr. Carrière also collaborated with other top filmmakers, including Jacques Deray (on the 1969 movie “The Swimming Pool” and more) and Louis Malle (on the 1967 film “The Thief of Paris” and others). In the 1970s one of his greatest successes was as a writer of Volker Schlondorff’s “The Tin Drum” (1979), which was adapted from the Günter Grass novel about a boy who, in the midst of the gathering chaos that led to World War II, decides not to grow up; it won the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

In the 1980s he wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for Daniel Vigne’s “The Return of Martin Guerre” (1982), Andrzej Wajda’s “Danton” (1983), Milos Forman’s “Valmont” (1989) and numerous other movies. Among the most recent of his more than 150 film and television credits were “The Artist and the Model,” a 2012 drama directed by Fernando Trueba, and “At Eternity’s Gate,” a 2018 film about Vincent van Gogh directed by Julian Schnabel.

In 2014 Mr. Carrière received an honorary Oscar for his body of work. The citation said that his “elegantly crafted screenplays elevate the art of screenwriting to the level of literature.”

The prolific Mr. Carrière also wrote books and plays, often collaborating with the stage director Peter Brook. His interests knew no bounds.

With Mr. Brook he created “The Mahabharata,” a nine-hour stage version of the Sanskrit epic, which was staged at the Avignon Theater Festival in France in 1985 and then made into a film. He once wrote a book with the Dalai Lama (“The Power of Buddhism,” 1996). He wrote a novel called “Please, Mr. Einstein” that, as Dennis Overbye wrote in a 2006 review in The New York Times, “touches down lightly and charmingly on some of the thorniest philosophical consequences of Einstein’s genius and, by extension, the scientific preoccupations of the 20th century — the nature of reality, the fate of causality, the comprehensibility of nature, the limits of the mind.”

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FRANCE: CULTURE VS COVID: A FINAL CURTAIN CALL FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS? INTERVIEWS WITH BASIL TWIST AND MARION SIEFERT ·

(Olivia Salazar-Winspear’s interviews appeared 2/19 on France24.)

As part of France24’s week-long series about how the arts are dealing with Covid-19, we take a look at the impact of the health crisis on theatre, dance and opera. Playwright and director Marion Siefert joins us in the studio to talk about how the “stop-start” measures of 2020 affected her productions. She also explains how her latest play “Jeanne Dark” has successfully made the shift into the virtual space, with performances streamed live on Instagram.

We then discuss the upcoming restrictions on crowd sizes and social distancing at festivals, and how they will affect young artists and smaller institutions.

And we check in with American puppeteer Basil Twist, who managed to stage a full-scale production of “Titon et L’Aurore” at the Opéra Comique in Paris, despite the absence of a live audience.

Go to France24

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (111) ·

The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

Much which seemed natural to me was in reality born of old theatrical frumpery. The most terrible thing of all is when self-conceit deceives the actor and when a disjointedness is formed between his body and his soul, between living over a part and its incarnification, when a muscular rebirth goes on in the body of the actor. Then his nature, his voice, his gestures, his mimetics, become crippled, like a spoiled and badly tuned piano. I was shaken. . . . (MLIA)

UP CLOSE: THE VOODOO MACBETH THAT GENERATED JOBS FOR BLACK AMERICANS DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION ·

(from Shakespeare & Beyond, February 16, 2021.)  | 

Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth in 1936. Courtesy Library of Congress

A struggling economy. Unemployed artists. Hard-hit Black communities. It might sound like we’re talking about our present pandemic life in America, but this also describes the situation in the 1930s, during the Great Depression.

In the midst of these difficult conditions, a spectacular production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth took the stage at Lafayette Theatre in New York City, involving hundreds of Black actors, theater technicians, and supporting staff. It was financed by the Federal Theatre Project, a controversial part of the federal government’s New Deal programs to provide jobs for Americans.

This 1936 Macbeth was distinctive for a variety of reasons: the large, all-Black cast performing a classical play (extremely unusual for the time); the voodoo-infused setting in 19th-century Haiti with colorful jungle scenery; and the involvement of a 20-year-old Orson Welles, who was making his professional directorial debut.

Related: Listen to a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode about Orson Welles and Shakespeare

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STARS IN YOUR EYES: THE 50S MUSICAL SALUTING ACTORS IN A CRISIS ·

 

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/16; Photo: Slapstick and sentimental songs … Pat Kirkwood in the 1956 musical comedy Stars in Your Eyes. Photograph: networkonair.com.)

Our series on films about theatre continues with a British comedy in which variety acts face an existential threat when TV steals their audience

Theatres around the country are shutting their doors and there are scarce opportunities on stage for actors. That’s the grimly familiar scenario in the 1956 British film Stars in Your Eyes, which charts the final years of variety. But this musical comedy – received as “cheery” and “disarmingly inconsequential” when it was first reviewed – strikes a further chord in Covid times by celebrating the resilience and ingenuity of theatre’s workforce.

Northern variety stars Nat Jackley and Pat Kirkwood get top billing as Jimmy and Sally, married entertainers who see audiences dwindling on their latest tour. “Rosa was in earlier,” one of them grumbles to the other. “Rosa?” “Rows a seats.” Jimmy and Sally’s act has been eclipsed by television and, after a month on the road, their revue won’t get any further than Scunthorpe. “The only way you can fill a theatre nowadays is to take all your clothes off,” sighs their agent.

After Jimmy unsuccessfully auditions for a TV gig, the couple spot an opportunity to open their own theatre with the help of washed-up songwriter Dave (Bonar Colleano) and his estranged wife, Ann (Welsh singer Dorothy Squires, in her only film role). Nothing can stop them apart from perhaps a leaky roof, a pair of devious property developers and the public’s telly fixation.

Written by Talbot Rothwell and directed by Maurice Elvey for Adelphi Films, Stars in Your Eyes shows how the entertainment industry constantly shifts to suit changing tastes and technologies – much like Singin’ in the Rain did for Hollywood talkies a few years earlier. The film is structured as a showcase for sketches and songs, usually filmed on stage but sometimes integrated into the storyline, especially in Jimmy and Sally’s domestic life where they still operate as a kind of double act. There’s a wonderful physicality in these scenes, whether it’s the rubber-limbed Jimmy ironing his ties, and his own mug, or Sally furiously buttering her toast. A lengthy holiday camp sketch is performed by Jimmy at his screen audition, which reveals the TV industry’s nervousness about variety; after creasing up at his act, the producer uneasily declares it too broad for the small screen.

Jackley has the funny bones you get when you’re born – as he was – into a circus dynasty with several generations of stage performers. In the film, it’s Dave who comes from a family of entertainers. The venue they plan to reopen, the Majestic, is a bombed-out theatre his parents once ran. It symbolises the state and perception of variety at the time: dusty, outdated and abandoned. Watching in lockdown, it’s as poignant to see this empty, rundown playhouse as it is to see the scenes of London’s bustling streets. But before you can say “keep calm and carry on” Jimmy is sewing some costumes and Sally is giving the walls a new lick of paint.

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S. KOREA’S MUSICAL SCENE RESUMES ONSTAGE SHOWS, WELCOMES FANS AS COVID-19 SEATING RULES EASED ·

(from Yonhap 12/12; PHOTO: provided by Acom, shows a scene from the musical “The Last Empress.” (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

SEOUL, Feb. 12 (Yonhap) — The South Korean musical scene is elated with the resumption of onstage shows, which had been suspended for nearly two months due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the return of fans.

Earlier, the South Korean health authorities slightly relaxed preventive guidelines at concert halls and theaters for performing arts although the nationwide social distancing have remained at the second-highest level for another two weeks until the coming Sunday.

Under the new rules, visitors are allowed to sit together with their accompanying friend or family member, with two empty seats on each side. Previously, concert halls and performing arts theaters had to put two empty seats between every audience member in a uniform manner.

Local musical companies, which had put their projects on hold for nearly two months due to the strict two-seat-apart rule, started to stage their postponed projects and extended their runs to meet rising demand for popular shows.

The blockbuster original musical “The Last Empress” will run until March 7 at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul, extended for 10 days from its original schedule. The show was set to kick off on Jan. 19 but was delayed until Feb. 2 after a two-week suspension.

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CLAIRE BLOOM AT 90: A PHENOMENAL ACTOR WITH POISE, SPIRIT AND STEEL ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/15; via Pam Green; Photo: ‘High creative aspirations’ … Claire Bloom, photographed in 2016. Photograph: Sarah Lee/the Guardian.)

The star’s long career, from her stage debut at 15 to her film, TV and literary success, reveals a shrewd talent who has risen to many a challenge

Acting must be the best rejuvenation pill on the market. If you want proof, you have only to look at the extraordinary, long-lasting career of Claire Bloom, who, somewhat incredibly, turns 90 on 15 February. She made her stage debut at the age of 15, became globally famous at 20 playing opposite Charlie Chaplin in Limelight and, in recent years, has been seen in numerous films, including The King’s Speech, and on television in Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets. To be famous young and still working 70 years later shows not just stamina and dedication but genuine, enduring talent.

I have only met Claire Bloom once and was awestruck by her beauty. But beauty will only take one so far as an actor and from the outset Bloom clearly had enormous power in reserve: when she played Ophelia at Stratford in 1948 – opposite the alternating, radically different Hamlets of Paul Scofield and Robert Helpmann – Kenneth Tynan observed how the words “If-thou-hadst-not-come-to-my-bed” were “isolated and driven home like a coffin nail”.

Bloom’s big break came when, while she was appearing on the London stage in Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon, she was invited by Chaplin to go to New York to do a screen test for Limelight: the role was that of a young dancer who is rescued from suicide by a famous clown and who, under his tutelage, slowly regains her self-confidence. After some delay, Bloom finally got the role and has recorded her surprise at Chaplin’s working methods. “Chaplin,” she said, “was the most exacting director not because he expected you to produce wonders of your own but because he expected you to follow unquestioningly his every instruction.” For an intelligent young actor with what she termed “high creative aspirations”, this must have been daunting, but her performance is much the best thing in a sentimentally melancholic movie.

Bloom shrewdly went on to play Shakespearean lead roles at the Old Vic in the 1950s. Tynan was in raptures about her Juliet, claiming that, while the average Juliet sings the part sweetly and chants it demurely, “Miss Bloom is impatient and mettlesome, proud and defiant, and no mere blindfolded, milk-fed mite”; he went on to describe her performance as “pure gold”. While forging a career in the classics, Bloom continued to make movies, appearing in Richard III, Alexander the Great and The Brothers Karamazov. But, although she never lacked work, there was a sense that her true abilities had never been fully realised.

Far from coasting through her middle years, Bloom took on new challenges in three stage performances I was lucky enough to see. In 1973, she was Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and brought out beautifully the Viking madness of the big dance scene and the brittle hysteria induced by a life of domestic role-playing. Then in 1974 she played Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and conveyed to perfection a woman whose aristocratic pose conceals both a genuinely poetic soul and an emotional desperation. In 1977, she played another damaged idealist, Rebecca West, in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, and, although I wanted a bit more crusading fervour, I would lay the blame on the production rather than the performer.

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