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Sun Rises on Coriolanus

Weekend Guardian, 20th October 1990

Diary: Michael Pennington

An anxious vegetarian is stuck into a Japanese dictionary, practising his phonetics. The Alaskan air comes like a welcome slap in the face after eight house of jet trance. At Anchorage we revert for an hour from Sunday midnight to Sunday teatime before lurching forward into Monday evening in Tokyo. On the second, stupefied leg of the journey, a flickering Arnold Schwarzenegger performs the unspeakable in front of a cargo of tranquillised sea lions, air pillows like water wings around our necks. The English Shakespeare Company is on the move once more, heading for a second engagement at Tokyo’s Globe Theatre, a salmon-pink, good-enough replica of Shakespeare’s own in semi-residential Takadanobaba. And only one bag left at Heathrow this time.

American effectiveness has nosed ahead of Japanese courtesy here: the staff are blunt, and don’t thank you for using the lift. We’re staying at the Metropolitan Holiday Inn in Ikebukuro, an area destined for great things in the 21st century, according to the Guest Guide. Jet-lag stalks us insidiously for three days: settling down in front of the television some instantly fall asleep for twelve house; others, with the most exhaustive reading lists and the most definite plans to visit Nikko in the morning, are led astray by their own bright eyes as soon as they land, and end up in darkened rooms, sleeping off ferocious hangovers.

Having arrived on Monday night, we rehearse Wednesday, open ‘Coriolanus’ Thursday night, and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ on Friday. We opened the Globe in 1988 with our seven-play cycle of Histories over the weekend of Shakespeare’s birthday: a momentous (and fatiguing) event now washed over with nostalgia. Since then, Seiya Tamura, who manages the theatre under the relaxed eye of its owners, the Nishitoyama Development Company, has assiduously imported Ingmar Bergman, Bob Wilson, the Leningrad Maly, the National (twice), the RSC, Cheek by Jowl, and many others. Already this year he had had three Hamlets and two Lears. His insistent xenophilia has not made him many friends in local theatre, which feels rather repudiated. On the other hand, probably no one in the world is importing foreign work with such single-mindedness, or hosting it so warmly, presiding over his court with notable profligacy – 600 seats in front of expensive companies (Bergman brought 70 people). Now Tamura has reduced his capacity even more by extending the Globe’s forestage into the house, and some of the Elizabethan feel has gone.

On Tuesday he throws an all-night welcoming party for us, which though he may not know it, is subtly binding together our new company (we’ve only been playing the current season a week) in an alcoholic alchemy which will find its healthful way on to the stage two days later as ensemble playing.

Through the fumes, Tamura has some awesome new boasts to make, not least that of having hosted a member of the British Royal Family to a performance of its own National Theatre Company (yes, indeed); and he is able to bring me up to date with quite a lot of West End gossip that I haven’t heard before. He is not worried about sales for ‘The Winter’s Tale’ which is well liked by Japanese audiences, who view it as a romantic fairy-tale. This surprises me, for if it is, it is one written by Strindberg. He is more worried about ‘Coriolanus’, little known here, which is also surprising, since I would have thought the values of the play’s protagonist and its debate on government would be readily picked up. Perhaps our version, in which the hero has more the air of a well-born Yakuza hoodlum than Aryan übermensch, may penetrate in the same way as the play’s obvious application to Eastern Europe is doing at home.

In the event, so it seems to me, both shows have opened strongly, to the evident pleasure of an audience unaccustomed to see English country and real sheep-shearing in ‘The Winter’s Tale’. The whole event has proved again what feats a company and staff, virtually unrehearsed and falling through open skies with barely a phrase in common, is capable of.

The literal cost to the Globe has been as disproportionate as ever: the hole in their bucket gapes wider than the ceremonial sake barrel bashed open on the first night, with only a little sponsorship from Fuji to bung it. The human cost has been borne stoically, too. Inside the Globe stage door, between the payphones and the cold drink dispenser, is a little Shinto shrine; it looks like something at a duty-free but is in utter earnest. On our first visit, a zealous stage manager took a professional fancy to the table on which it stood and moved it; a priest was discreetly called in to reconsecrate the shrine.

Our set this year was potentially heavier than any other visiting company’s had been (theatrical simplicity can be a costly business). Eventually, we left most of it at home, asking our hosts to supply replicas at very short notice of Coriolanus’s statue and Bohemia’s shearing barn. They did it, and now have barely blanched as we proceed to cut it all, not liking it in situ and preferring to revert to open staging.

Tamura’s hospitality expands under such slights, and the Globe Tavern bar, where we launched a cocktail tariff two years ago – an aperitif for each of a hundred Shakespeare characters – refuses our money. When I devised white rum, vodka, and angostura bitters for Coriolanus then, I didn’t know I would soon be back to pay the penalty.

Back in the world, the midnight Tokyo rush-hour, conducted in spotless carriages, advertising banners hanging like carnival flags overhead and untouched by graffiti, is nevertheless a bestial counterpoint to the somewhat neurotic courtesies of the city.

Anxiety filters through this complicated society, but there is precious little time to learn anything new, and the ESC’s next date is Hull. My room at the Globe is lightened by an orchid thoughtfully left behind by Natasha Parry (last week) and messages from Ian McKellen and Peter Needham (the week before). I’ve also just had a letter from a psychologist with the Brahma World University who feels that Michael Bogdanov and I must have some beautiful fire burning in us, but warns that if we don’t love our task one hundred per cent, somewhere underneath the hard work will be a little cry for praise. We’ll try, I promise.

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