TNT’s Twelfth Night at Japan Women’s University
On Thursday 11 May, Japan Women’s University (JWU) hosted a performance of TNT Theatre Britain’s or International Theatre Company London’s current, world-touring production Twelfth Night in its Oufu Kaikan (hall). Over three hundred audience members. These were mainly students at the university (all women) and some staff (mixed), but members of the general public also attended. I was invited to attend the performance by the event’s local organiser, Saeko Machi, a research associate and English teacher in the Department of English language and literature. With my ongoing research on Shakespeare in East Asian higher education, I was curious to witness first hand, for the first time, the historically well-established (often colonial) phenomenon of a British troupe, with a British director, playing in an Asian educational institution. Their production of Romeo and Juliet had been warmly received at JWU previously, but I was interested in how the less well-known, less filmed comedy, with a deal of word play that editors still struggle to gloss, would be proffered and would fare.
TNT performed a cut-down version of the play, with a handful of actors. Their set for touring, loosely early modern costumes and props fitted into a few suitcases. The company played multiple instruments and sang, with no pre-recorded music used. Music at the start of both halves of the production had a practical function of allowing the audience to settle in, late-comers to take their places with minimal disruption but might also appeal in cultures where music and song play a large part in performing arts – from traditional forms such as kabuki to modern musicals. The audience’s comprehension of the dialogue was aided by an introduction to the play in Japanese by a member of the English department, Japanese subtitles, and the use of slapstick and other non-verbal exchanges, such as mimed interactions punctuated with grunts or squeals which won laughs. For example, Aguecheek pulling faces at the smell of his boots until he realised an unfinished bottle of wine lay therein and zealously inserted his head to neck the liquor produced several peals of laughter from the audience. The cowardice and accordingly wimpish fight tactics of Aguecheek and Cesario were similarly received, as well as some of the sexual advances of characters that queered characters or actors or threatened to expose their disguises (particularly Belch’s flirtation with Maria, the latter given a pantomime flavour by the male actor playing the role). Movement and gesture provoked the most evident response from the audience, including an interactive clapping game, pitting one half of the room against the other, which Feste ran with the crowd from on stage.
One tactic, possibly for increasing the pedagogic value of the performance for the EAL (English as an additional language) students and the audience buy-in to the event, was to have a handful of students, who came professionally dressed in suits and teacher-like work clothes, frame the play with an introduction, in English, to the company’s work and chair a post-show discussion. This stressed TNT’s international credentials. For instance, they claim to have performed more overseas than any other UK Shakespeare company. The students also ran a ‘brief interview section’ with the actors playing Orsino and Viola/Cesario (the questions were pre-prepared, although the actors opened questions up to the floor towards the end – with a native English speaker asking the company ‘What went wrong and how do you cope with it?’ and receiving answers about the challenges of adapting to the touring set and importance of shared laughter at hilarious bloopers between actors and audience). Their first question, ‘What is the most important thing to pay attention to when playing Orsino or Viola?’, was answered by the latter. Her response concerned the difficulty of establishing Viola’s character when she is only on stage ‘as herself’ for minutes but resolved the challenge by describing actors universally as working to ‘play the truth of the character’ and be ‘true to’ their ‘intentions’. The second question, ‘What is the advantage for the EAL student in watching Shakespeare?’, was answered by the actor playing Orsino with reference to Shakespeare’s role in shaping the English language, his coining of still-used idioms. The third question, ‘What is the difference between performing modern drama and Shakespeare’s plays?’, was answered in terms of Shakespeare being alien even to native English speakers, ‘like performing in a foreign…a slightly foreign…language with some familiar words’, so that Anglophone actors themselves have to translate him. The notion that Shakespeare’s language requires more of audiences than modern dramatists because although he expressed universal emotions, he does so with less concern for or compulsion towards brevity, was also suggested by the actors. The discussion therefore highlighted the tension between Shakespeare as the father of modern English (with ‘only 5 to 10 per cent of Shakespearean English…different from modern English‘) and as a writer rendered difficult by the historicity of his English; essential to modern English and simultaneously at a remove from it. It productively troubled rationales for teaching Shakespeare in English as an additional language classes, which authors and educators such as Miriam Lau, Maria Eisenmann, Christiane Lutge and Genevieve White have addressed in their work.
Read more on this event from Saeko Machi in Teaching Shakespeare magazine, forthcoming late 2017. She will be focusing on actors’ and students’ perspectives on the performance. You can also read her article about a previous visit from TNT playing Romeo and Juliet at JWU. Or, find out how Shakespeare is taught in Japan more widely and Korea.