What Happens On Tour…

GENEVIEVE GAUNT gives us a behind the scenes glimpse at the Pembroke Players’ Shakespeare tour in Japan, including Gaga-related antics and finding Japan’s smallest woman.

acting Breakfast Cambridge culture green room Japan japan tour Lady Gaga pembroke players Shakespeare the tube Theatre Twelfth Night typhoon

Bleary-eyed, I stumble into a toilet in Haneda Airport in Japan; the bathroom lights flash on in succession like mad dominoes; a cautious press of the first button sprays my bum whilst the second button blow-dries it. I start to realise quite how much technology pervades every area of life here.

It’s September and we’re on the Pembroke Players Japan tour of Twelfth Night. The idea of theatre tours of Shakespeare can sound  a bit pompous, like we’re trying to take literature to the great unwashed. This account is to show how much fun it is doing ‘out there’, experimental, occasionally sacrilegious things to Shakespeare and letting other people watch, all in the name of education and entertainment.

We’re not sure what the Japanese audiences will make of it, or us. One inherent problem reveals itself as I pass a bunch of Japanese outside the theatre we’re performing at in Yokohama: ‘the problem with English people is that they all look the same’ they whisper.

Toilets should not be this complicated.

Our production transported its set and the Japanese imagination through three vintage suitcases, each of which opened up to reveal three different settings: the mansion, the bar and the street. Lugging the luggage across the city was no joke though. The marathon tube journeys were repaid by the utter joy of seeing our posters on the tube – advertised by a bright cartoon of a distinctly Japanese looking Shakespeare – his head thrown back in delight- at a piano. Because Shakespeare was a real musical beast…

We held classes at Meji and Sekei University and taught the students a bit about Shakespeare and Twelfth Night. They were very shy at first but by the end we had them swaggering and spitting out Sir Toby Belch’s loutisms such as “Sneck up!” and “Rogue!” with glee. I found that drunkenly singing Bad Romance to illustrate the party scene was a great language barrier bulldozer. If in doubt, illustrate with Gaga: “I desire thine ugly, I desire thy disease.”

Back at the hotel, I note the English breakfast option: bread, yoghurt, an egg and… cauliflower. The British do love their lightly steamed cauliflower for breakfast. A fellow company member and I occupied every walking moment playing a game: to spot and stand beside Tokyo’s smallest woman. There are many minuscule contenders, but we find her.

Tokyo’s smallest woman

Mid trip the typhoon arrives. I’m in my room going over lines, when I feel a violent tremor. My first thought is not, however, ‘earthquake?’ as would have been rational but, rather, ‘Is there a man under my bed?’ it was a quake, and thankfully, not the man I saw that morning with a large knitted chili on his head.

Did the Japanese audiences enjoy our play? Yes, they hooted, but not when it was funny – rather when they understood. Lines such as Sir Toby’s: “Ay me, she’s a beagle, true bred and one that adores me,” which was lapped up in Cambridge was greeted with attentive silence in Japan. One man in the front row kept his eyes glued to his copy of the play, dutifully turning the pages in time to the show, occasionally looking up with a look of bemused disappointment when we weren’t completely faithful to the script.

Us in Shinjuku. Beautiful!

On the last night, in the centre of Tokyo, we performed to an audience of over 800, people were sitting in the aisles. At 125% capacity the energy that radiated from the audience was magnificent. All the archaisms and difficult words seemed to melt away and pure audience enjoyment pealed out. In fact, sometimes I think the Japanese understood the heart of the play more so than the occasional American ex-pat who would pipe up in a Q&A session with: “So, like, Antonio, is he gay or what?”. We were treated like celebrities, cameras were constantly flashing, sake knocked back and goodie bags bestowed.

I pulled out my suitcase a few days ago to pack for the vac and came across what I could only describe as a treasure trove: sake in cans, Geisha postcards, Anime ice-cream key-rings, sushi rubbers, foldable cups, crumpled train tickets, ‘Breathshower Mints’, ‘Crunky Ball Nude’ chocolate and Pumpkin KitKats. I’ve eaten the chocolate by now but saved the wrappers, shiny memory-joggers like this scribbling of a fantastic trip.