Coriolanus: baguettes and a basket case

All images courtesy of The Globe, © Simon Annand

When I first heard about the Globe to Globe festival – 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages – I immediately wondered what the Japanese offering would be. I’ll admit that I did hope it would be something well-known like Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, when I heard it would be Coriolanus, my heart sunk a little. A Roman tragedy? In Japanese?! Nevertheless, I ran out and bought tickets as soon as they went on sale. This would surely be an experience not to be missed!

As the night approached and I heard such good reviews of the other plays in the festival (Twelfth Night in Hindi, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Korean, As You Like It in Georgian…) and I became quite excited. Coriolanus by the Chiten theatre company was showing for just two nights and some of my friends had tickets for the first night. I was going on the second night, and eagerly pestered them for reviews after they had seen the play. They reported that it was “heavy going”, “difficult for even native Japanese to understand”, and that there was “a lot of bread eating”.

Bread there was. In fact, large baguettes seemed to be central to the difficult to follow plot, and some lines were even spoken through mouthfuls of the white stuff. I still don’t really know what all the carbs were about, and I’m not sure if I was supposed to find it funny every time Coriolanus, wearing a Komuso-style basket on his head (perhaps to indicate that he was in disguise, trying to remove his ego, or distance himself somehow), thrust his baguette into the audience, but overall I would say I did enjoy the play.

For many reasons this production was hard to understand, but when a helicopter started circling over head I did nearly give up trying altogether. The helicopter, followed by a particularly loud seagull and a number of planes didn’t do much for the atmosphere, but I guess that’s what you have to prepare for when you sign up to perform at the globe. To give Chiten their due, they didn’t seem to bat an eyelid or lose concentration at all. The Globe certainly is a unique space to work in, and I don’t envy anyone who tries.

I’m not familiar with the story of Coriolanus and although I do like Shakespeare, my knowledge of his plays is limited to the more famous ones. I can’t say I understood this production, but I’m not sure I would have understood it any more in English. So, instead of trying to make perfect sense of the plot, I enjoyed it for what it was. It was quirky, with music played on kazoos and a xylophone. It was funny, with badly played trumpets parping and playful voices. It was flavoured with Japan, with Noh-style masks, a clear nod to the hinomaru, and shibori (tie-dyed) costumes.

Coriolanus was played as a bit of a basket case, if you’ll excuse the pun. I’m not sure if this is how other actors have played the part before, but I enjoyed Dai Ishida’s portrayal. I noticed quite a few people leaving throughout the first half, and some who didn’t come back for the second half, which was sad. I guess some people might have gone along expecting to understand the play because they have studied Japanese. I was thrilled every time I caught a word or phrase, but was also happy enough just to listen to the music of the words without understanding all of the meaning. It’s amazing how much you can get from the actions and general sound of things without knowing the words that are uttered.

This was a very different experience to my last foray into Japanese Shakespeare, and I expect it will be different again to the upcoming production of Cymbeline by the Ninagawa Company at the Barbican. I’m really glad I attended though, and would highly encourage you to consider seeing some Shakespeare – in any language – this year. We are, after all, in the midst of the World Shakespeare Festival.

All images courtesy of The Globe, © Simon Annand

2 thoughts on “Coriolanus: baguettes and a basket case

  1. I went on Monday night and didn’t understand any of what was being said, but didn’t expect to as my Japanese is very basic. I loved that it wasn’t a naturalistic production and the actors were almost always on stage together. There was plenty to watch and find interesting. Some of the people I was with had ideas about the bread being a metaphor for power but I just enjoyed wondering if the cast were all sick of bread by now. it was also my first time visiting the Globe and, aside from the uncomfortable benches which I’d been warned about, I was very impressed. I think I expected it to be all wooden rather than the colourful marble.

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