When Tadashi Suzuki decamped his theatre company from Tokyo to the remote mountain village of Toga in 1976, the esteemed director, actor and founder of the physically rigorous Suzuki Method of Acting was making a point. If Tokyo's big city bustle was a form of insanity, then Togo gave his company the space to breathe, while Suzuki could flex his creative muscles far from Tokyo's maddening crowd.
An effect on Suzuki's life's work from such a conscious seismic shift is inevitable, as Waiting For Orestes: Electra, his take on Euripides' version of the Greek myth produced by his Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT), which opens at Edinburgh International Festival this weekend. In the play, as Electra waits for her absent brother to help her murder their adulterous mother who killed their father, given such a dysfunctional back-story, perhaps it's no surprise that Suzuki has opted to re-set the play in a psychiatric hospital, where Electra exists in a near speechless condition.
If such a setting wasn't already troubling enough, Suzuki reins in his heroine via a chorus of men in wheelchairs. The metaphors of Electra's inner turmoil - “All the world's a hospital,” Suzuki has written, “and all the men and women merely inmates,” - aren't exactly subtle.
“For me,” says Suzuki, “wheelchairs do not represent a physical dependency on something outside of ourselves, but rather a psychological dependency that occurs within ourselves. In other
words, the characters in wheelchairs in my plays are not physically crippled, or
handicapped in any way, but rather mentally crippled/handicapped. So, for me, the
wheelchair is a symbolic device representing psychological phenomena.”
This is an all too typical approach to the world by Suzuki, who has previously used wheelchair-bound performers in his Euripides-inspired Dionysus, when a group who were members of a fictional end of history cult wheeled themselves onto the stage reciting lines from Macbeth. In Waiting For Orestes: Electra, as Suzuki has indicated, these figures accentuate Electra's inner turmoil.
“In Waiting For Orestes, the two female protagonists are trapped in a state of criminal
psychosis,” Suzuki observes. “One has been driven mad by her struggle to justify a past crime--the murder of her husband, while the other is obsessed with a crime she has yet to commit, the murder of her mother. In my opinion, both are equally guilty. Electra shows the process leading up to the crime and the delusions needed to carry out the act, while Clytemnestra shows the madness that descends after the crime, and the vicious cycle of trying to defend it. Clytemnestra is Electra's future.”
For Suzuki, these very personal acts of violence have far wider implications.
“Just as Clytemnestra and Electra use violence to free themselves from the oppression of their
circumstances,” he says, “terrorists employ similar tactics to challenge our contemporary world order. What is important to understand is that any act of terror is a complex reaction and cannot be
seen as simply good or evil. The modern terrorist is targeting both the countries they
perceive as oppressive, as well their own community’s complacency. I believe these violent
struggles for freedom could multiply as globalisation expands. One of the main goals of
globalisation, from an economic perspective, is the minimising of differences between
peoples in the interest of financial profit. It is a process of standardising each market system
to function in increasingly similar ways. Electra’s fight to maintain her identity may one day be
shared by all of us, as we struggle to keep a sense of ourselves in a world that is trying to
make us all the same.”
This relate too to why SCOT exist in Toga rather than a metropolitan hub.
“For me,” he says, “big cities tend to function better as marketplaces than as places of creation. This is true whether talking about manufacturing, sports or the theatre. Manufactures produce their
goods in factories located far away from urban centres, and then ship these goods in to be
sold and consumed. This is done mainly to keep costs down, and to have more flexibility in
how they manage the quality of their facilities, workers and products. Sports organizations
develop training camps also far from the urban venues where matches are played. This is
done so the proper time is taken to train and develop their athletes and teams until they are
strong and skilled enough to compete.
“I find that theatre companies, too, are difficult to form in urban centres. In addition to the
higher costs of rehearsing and producing, the city adds many challenges to organizing
people, schedules, transportation, facilities, etc., which severely limit the time and space
available for artistic activity. Moreover, artistic activity in an urban setting must follow the
civic order established by the municipality, so that things like rehearsing late into the night,
or outside, for example, are much more likely to create conflicts with the authorities. In the
country, there is considerably more flexibility, which allows the time and space for a theatre
group to concentrate deeply on cultivating a unique style and ensemble awareness, which in
turn fuels the creation of work on a superior artistic level.”
None of this has stopped Suzuki travelling the world with SCOT. Since 1972, when Suzuki was invited to take his production, On the Dramatic Passions II, to the Theatre of Nations Festival in Paris, he and Scot have performed at festivals in thirty-one countries. Suzuki hasn't been in the UK since 1985, however, and Waiting For Orestes: Electra will be his and SCOT's first EIF visit.
Since his move to Toga, Suzuki and SCOT (the company name was changed in 1984) have existed at the epicentre of an internationalist form of theatre-making. With American director Anne Bogart, Suzuki co-founded the Saratoga International Theatre Institute in New York, has headed up numerous international initiatives, and has developed Toga itself into one of the largest theatrical centres in the world. During this time, Suzuki has developed his Noh and Kabuki rooted techniques, fusing them with more contemporary European thinking.
Born in 1939 in the small town of Shimizu in Shizuoka, Suzuki grew up with his musician parents, who worked in traditional Japanese puppet theatre. This early exposure to traditional Japanese art-forms made a deep impression on Suzuki as a child, and it was only at high school that he discovered western theatre. Even today, it is Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett, Dostoevsky and Kafka who Suzuki looks to for inspiration.
Suzuki's early productions were a steady diet of Russian and American staples; Three Sisters, The Crucible, Death of A Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire. While still in his twenties, Suzuki co-founded the Waseda Shogekijo company with other Japanese artists, occupying a Tokyo-based theatre space of the same name. This formed the foundations for SCOT, which Suzuki continues to develop work with.
“Since I started making theatre, the systems by which humans communicate have changed
drastically,” he says. “Thus, while my philosophy towards the theatre and what I perceive to be its
expressive elements, the actor's body, voice, lights, costumes and music--have not really
changed, the way in which I use these elements to project my philosophy and world-view
has deepened over time.”
Beyond Waiting For Orestes: Electra, Suzuki is already in the thick of typically audacious plans.
“I am making a contemporary children's theatre production of Cinderella,” he says, “where I explore the possibility that the prince doesn't exist.”
Waiting For Orestes: Electra, EIF, Kings Theatre, August 11-13, 8pm
The Herald, August 10th 2012