Adam Isfendiyar

There once was a play first performed four hundred years ago in England. It became known worldwide until eventually it was translated in an island country of Asia, and returned transformed to its country of origin. For the last four years I have been a fascinated observer of the story of this play. Let me tell you more, but first, some background notes:

A professor of English at a Japanese regional university dreams of building a replica of the Globe. He rallies supporters to the cause and founds an amateur acting troupe that, with permission from the Royal Shakespeare Company, is called The Shakespeare Company. The company’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays gain popularity, and in 2000 they stage Macbeth of Mt Osore at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Tragedy strikes in 2005 when the professor is widowed with three young daughters. He struggles on without his muse to write an adaptation of Othello called Atui Othello. This is the last play the company performs before the great earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. They give travelling performances in disaster zones for a year and then disperse. The professor continues holding workshops at schools in stricken communities and prepares the manuscripts of his adaptations for publication.

Forward to 2016, when I first encounter The Shakespeare Company at an international translators conference in Sendai, where the company is based. Sendai is a city of approximately one million, 300 kilometres north of Tokyo in the Tohoku region. One of the conference organizers had been unable to forget the company’s version of A Midsummer Nights Dream she had seen twenty years earlier, and persuaded Kazumi Shimodate, the professor, to stage ten-minute excerpts from Shakespeare’s four great tragedies as the keynote speech.

This was no mean task, as company members had scattered far and wide since 2011. Shimodate, however, decided it was a chance to return to their mission of building a replica of the Globe, and therefore an opportunity not to be missed. He gave the call and the actors responded.

I had seen performances by professional Japanese theatre troupes, but nothing like The Shakespeare Company. We were treated to scenes from The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear – five plays, not four, as it turned out. The setting for most of these adaptations was Tohoku, and they had been translated into Tohoku dialect, not standard Japanese. The incongruity of hearing Shakespeare in such familiar, earthy language and novelty of seeing the characters as sushi company president, indigenous Ainu, feudal retainer and so on was a shock, but the plays were recognizably Shakespearean and as theatre it worked! In less than ideal conditions – basically a large conference centre auditorium with daytime lighting – the actors gave performances that were suffused with an energy and atmosphere that mesmerized the audience. As one we were drawn in; laughed, were moved and swept away by the drama.

Afterwards I met Professor Shimodate in person and my curiosity about the company was further piqued. He was debonair, and spoke English with a refined accent that in my Australian ears can only be described as posh. I was intrigued by the stark contrast between the lines of dialect he had written for the plays, and the elegant English that came from his lips. He seemed an anomaly in this regional Japanese city, but who was I to talk, since I too am from a country background, and my in-laws also speak Tohoku dialect. I should know that capital cities do not have a monopoly on sophistication, cosmopolitanism and learning; ergo country does not equal bumpkin, nor does dialect equal inferior or uneducated.

A respect for linguistic cultural diversity – the right to speak in one’s own language and reclaim the identity shaped by that language – has been one of the pivotal cultural about-turns of this century. In Japan, however, though a multitude of dialects and languages are spoken, national discourse is dominated by one of Tokyo’s dialects, which became the language of government, power and education long ago. It was designated “standard” when centuries of rule by the Tokugawa Shogunate ended in 1868 and the new imperial Meiji administration set out to unify the country. Generally speaking, one does not hear dialects spoken on national TV, except in the context of their quirky or entertainment value, and never will you hear the news read in anything other than standard Japanese. The Tohoku dialect is actually a group of dialects spoken in the northern region of Japan known as Tohoku, and not all of them are mutually intelligible. Historically, Tohoku dialects have had a negatively provincial image; a long way from the highbrow language of Shakespeare.

Shimodate, however, had an epiphany about language when he was studying Shakespeare at Cambridge in 1992. He observed how a London restaurant serving – in his opinion – inexcusably inauthentic ramen was a huge hit with British customers, while dinner guests reacted to his own painstakingly concocted authentic soup and noodles with mere politeness. London-style ramen for Londoners and Japanese-style ramen for Japanese… What could that mean for Shakespeare? It dawned on him that Tohoku audiences might prefer hearing Shakespeare in Tohoku dialect, with stories they could relate to. Shakespeare was, after all, supposed to be for everybody, not just scholars and the cultural elite. This was the beginning of his translating Shakespeare’s plays into dialect with plots adapted to regional history and locations.

Shimodate’s hometown is only sixteen kilometres from Sendai but the dialect spoken there is different. He translates the plays into his dialect and the actors accordingly adapt the lines to their own. This approach is a defining characteristic of The Shakespeare Company, and what makes their performances accessible to audiences in Tohoku, while those outside the region appreciate the local flavour and liveliness it gives the productions.

However, the starting point of all this was Shimodate’s dream of building a theatre. And not just any theatre, but a replica of the Globe. For him it is the ideal venue, a playhouse on a human scale, somewhere that can be a centre for community drama and education, and a place where people will gather from around Japan and the world to perform in Tohoku. For the last thirty years he has focused on this goal with an inventiveness and energy that draws others into the whirlpool of his vision and creates a self-perpetuating force. He often invites people from all walks of life to his home, to eat and talk over ramen. It was here he first shared his dream of building the theatre, and the idea of The Shakespeare Company was born.

My first glimpse in 2016 of the play that was to become Ainu Othello lasted merely ten minutes. Atui Othello, as it was still called – atui being the Ainu word for “sea” – had a recognizably Ainu flavour because of Osero’s (Othello) and Dezuma’s (Desdemona) costume and the few words of Ainu sprinkled in the dialogue. But it was not much to judge from.

This was the first time Shimodate had set an adaptation outside of Tohoku. Othello had long been on his agenda but he could not find exactly the right setting to fit the theme of racial discrimination. Hokkaido, however, had potential because of its history and on a research trip there in 2009, he found inspiration. The setting would be Hokkaido in 1860, when it was called Ezo, and it would be the tragedy of an ethnic Ainu general called Osero, who was raised by a Japanese retainer of the Sendai Clan, stationed in Hokkaido at the Shogunate’s behest to defend the land against Ainu rebellion and incursions by the Russians. Osero, who serves in the Sendai Clan force, falls in love with Dezuma, the Japanese daughter of another clan retainer.

Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido, but in 1869, when it was annexed by the Japanese government, Japanese settlers poured in and they were forced to assimilate. The traditional Ainu culture and lifestyle was suppressed, and the Ainu language pushed to the brink of extinction, to the extent that it is listed by UNESCO as a critically endangered language.

In 2008 the Japanese government officially recognized the Ainu as a distinct culture for the first time and in 2019 passed a law recognizing them as an indigenous people of Japan, which now obliges it to protect the Ainu cultural identity and ban discrimination. However, the legacy of one hundred and fifty years of discrimination and cultural suppression remains, and it is no wonder that contemporary relations between the Ainu and Japanese peoples are fraught.

Atui Othello was staged twice in 2010, but Shimodate believes in the power of place, and insists on performing plays in the location where they are set, which in this case was Hokkaido. He was uneasy, however; how would Ainu people react to a troupe of Japanese actors staging a play about them, complete with derogatory language, on their home ground? He flew to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, to inspect a theatre for a performance, but when the manager failed to turn up he took that as a sign and cancelled the theatre booking. The date he had booked for was March 20, 2011, nine days after the earthquake.

Five years passed and Atui Othello disappeared from the stage, until 2016 and the conference breathed life into it and the company again. It also led to much-needed funding, and so Shimodate, deciding that revision was necessary, along with a new name for the play, set out on a research trip to Hokkaido two months later, in the summer of 2016. A series of fortuitous coincidences – and thereby hangs another tale – lead to his meeting Debo Akibe, an Ainu activist, craft cooperative manager, and dance troupe director amongst other things, at the Lake Akan Ainu village. Akibe only agreed to meet Shimodate at a friend’s request, and had every intention of fobbing him off. But Shimodate’s zeal and enthusiasm won out. Akibe not only cooperated on the script of Ainu Othello, as the play was now called, he eventually became co-director as well.

In January 2018 I witnessed the result of their collaboration at the premiere performance of Ainu Othello in Sendai. It was unforgettably powerful. I was transported to Ezo in 1860, a world I knew nothing of, yet it felt as real and relevant as the world outside the theatre doors. Judging by the long, thunderous applause at the end, everybody else in the audience felt the same. A highlight for me was the music and dance performed by Pirikap, the Ainu dance troupe Akibe had invited to join the production. Shimodate and Aikbe’s candid talk on stage at the end also added to the drama of the evening.

One of Akibe’s motivations for collaborating was to ensure the authentic representation of Ainu culture. I had had only the most cursory exposure to it before, but I knew that every aspect of what I saw on stage, from the set, props and costume to music, dance and song, was genuine, and it gave me a sense of Ainu culture being something that was alive, not a museum piece.

Akibe’s contribution however was more than a stamp of cultural authenticity. He added Ainu language to the script and insisted that the historically correct discriminatory language Shimodate had cut be restored. Akibe has personally experienced much discrimination, but believes there is no point shirking from the fact it existed, and can only be eliminated through being brought into the open in the first place. His schooldays and experience of seeing Ainu people bully each other led to his suggestion that Yago (Iago) be of mixed Ainu-Japanese heritage, a masterstroke that added to the psychological complexity of Yago’s motivations and betrayal of Osero, and magnified the resonance of this character for a modern globalized  audience.

The play continued to evolve. In June of 2018 I saw it again in Tokyo and could tell there were changes. The death scene of Dezuma, which sent shivers down my spine, was one in particular that stood out. It was enacted to a groaning chant that was apparently sung at a battle in 1789 and traditionally handed down.

In July 2018 the long-delayed Sapporo performance took place, at a time when the 150th anniversary celebrations of the naming – or annexing, depending on your point of view – of Hokkaido were imminent. Approximately one hundred of the Ainu community were in the audience of 360 and the performance was deemed a success. Unfortunately I could not be there, but one significant change I heard about was the Pirikap members having speaking parts in addition to performing dance and music.

Another outcome of the Sapporo production was an invitation to stage Ainu Othello in London. Jatinder Verma, Artistic Director at the Tara Theatre and long-time friend and advisor to Shimodate, travelled there specially to see it. Verma, who had co-founded the theatre in the 1970s in response to racism, believed it was a timely production in the midst of rising racial tensions on the eve of Brexit.

In August 2019 a group of fourteen actors and staff travelled to the UK to stage a shorter, leaner version of the play. Akibe was unable to go and Shimodate handed the baton of director to Verma. Thus on entirely neutral ground for the first time, the cast underwent intense rehearsal as Verma gave a whole new polish to an already remarkable production. The experience appears to have been profoundly constructive for both Japanese and Ainu cast members, who said that Verma gave them new insight into performing and introducing culture, showing how the smallest of changes can make an enormous difference.

Alas I was not at the London production either, but I was privileged to view a recording. There were many differences, but most significant and moving for me was to see the four women of Pirikap fully integrated into the performance; their voices audibly speaking Ainu, their music and dance as essential to the play as any character. The final scene was so quietly tragic and beautiful, that watching at home alone in my living room, tears filled my eyes and I spontaneously burst into applause.

Ainu Othello is about love destroyed through jealousy and prejudice, while the story of Ainu Othello is about breaking down obstacles of time, language and history to create art. But in the Ainu language “Ainu” means human, and ultimately is all about human drama and the human need for stories. Happily, it seems the collaboration between Pirikap and The Shakespeare Company will continue, so there will be more plays and more stories.

Alison WATTS is an Australian literary translator resident in Japan. Her translations include Spark by Naoki Matayoshi (Pushkin Press), The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (Bitter Lemon Press), and Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (Oneworld). She blogs about sashiko and has written about the Fukushima disaster in Words Without Borders.

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