The Anderson Project (English/Japanese)

Archives: The Andersen Project

25 June 2006 (Sun), Tokyo

A one-man show conceived and performed by the inimitable Montreal-based director Robert Lepage. He was evidently commissioned by the Danish government to create a show celebrating Hans Christian Andersen, but what they got, unsurprisingly with Lepage, was something completely different. The story is about a Canadian writer who receives an EU commission to do the libretto for a children’s opera based on an Andersen story in conjunction with the Paris Opera. Having arranged an apartment swap with a Parisian friend (a drug addict who goes to Montreal to dry out), he finds himself living above a “video box”, i.e., a row of individual booths where guys can masturbate privately to porno videos. His contact at the Paris opera is a very French bureaucratic type who does all the talking and no listening (his opening dialogue with the Canadian turns out to be a very funny monologue). The Canadian does his best to come up with an acceptable script, even going to Denmark to talk with Royal Opera officials, but runs into a wall of indifference from all sides. He also finds himself longing for his girlfriend, with whom he has broken up after 16 years due largely to his reluctance to have children. Meanwhile, the Frenchman has discovered the video box and takes advantage of it on numerous occasions, suggesting a loneliness in his life as well behind the bureaucratic face. A recurring if silent character is the hooded and therefore faceless Moroccan who mops up the booths perfunctorily after customers are finished. Eventually the Frenchman, receiving a better offer from the U.S., decides to dump the writer (he tells the Canadian side that the contract was actually in U.S. rather than Canadian dollars, putting it out of their price range – “a trick we often use with Canadians”), but simply strings the writer along without actually telling him anything. The Canadian, knowing nothing of this, is becoming increasingly distressed at the total lack of contact since presenting his script. He discovers the truth only after looking inside the Frenchman’s suitcase, which the owner had carelessly left behind in one of the masturbation booths, and finding his manuscript unopened. Deflated, he calls his girlfriend to tell her he is returning to Canada, saying that he is even willing to have children if she’ll consider taking him back. It is only then that he learns that she has taken up with the Parisian drug addict. He even loses his Parisian residence when drug dealers torch the place.

The overall picture is loneliness and isolation: the Canadian surrounded by bureaucrats, eventually losing both job and girlfriend; the Frenchman with an estranged wife and evidently nowhere else to turn; the Moroccan who runs the store, an impersonal figure unknown even to his customers (and also a hooded vandal with a spray can); Andersen, who despite his child-friendly image was apparently a serial masturbator (sessions marked clearly in his diary). Even the two fairy tale characters die: the Dryad, a girl who escapes from inside a tree and goes to Paris, and the man whose shadow escapes from him and takes over. The only happy creature at the end, as befitting a show about Andersen, is an animal, the drug addict’s dog, who ends up having puppies in a virtual mockery of the childless Canadian.

The story was straightforward enough but had so many strands that it seemed a bit much at times. Lepage was an engaging presence who managed to give both his main characters distinctive personalities, helped by the fact that one spoke only English and the other either French or French-accented English. I’m not quite clear what he was trying to say, if anything, but his characters – the hapless, hesitant Canadian and the dismissive, ultimately lonely French bureaucrat – certainly struck a chord. The scenes varied from character to character, giving an impressionistic sense as the pieces gradually came together, but I was never confused. Memorable scenes included the Frenchman’s opening dialogue/monologue with the Canadian, the dance with the female mannequin, the Canadian’s meeting with the Danish opera guys, the scene on the train involving drugs, the scene at the dog’s analyst, the Frenchman in the booth taking calls from his child and ex-wife, his emergence from the booth when he finally talks with the Moroccan, a brilliant story about a shadow, the defeated Canadian returning the suitcase to the Frenchman and then learning in a long phone call that his girlfriend has left him. In no way did this feel like a one-man show.

The most striking feature of the show was the technical side. Lepage merged video screens, audio, lighting, sound and color in innovative ways to create a highly theatrical experience. In the very opening, a hooded figure walks onto the stage and then seemingly onto the middle of a white movie screen, where he “spray paints” a picture of Andersen as opening credits appear on the other side. There was also a clever use of a leash to represent a dog, a stunning transformation by Lepage into the fairy tale Dryad emerging from her tree, a train ride transformed into a psychedelic scene when the guy takes drugs, the entrance by train into the subway station, the Frenchman on the virtual steps at the Paris Opera, and the shadow leaving its owner, among many other interesting images. These virtuoso technical touches did threaten sometimes to overwhelm the story, but anyway added immeasurably to the experience.

The Japanese subtitles simply could not convey the essence of what was being said, particularly since much of it was ironic or representative of a character type. The Canadian’s resigned attitude in his opening speech at the Paris Opera or the Frenchman’s patronizing stance in his breathless opening dialogue/monologue elicited little laughter other than a few scattered voices, presumably foreigners familiar with the character types being parodied. When the dialogue was in French, I was relying on the Japanese subtitles myself, and found myself in silence while others, presumably French speakers, were laughing. Other than some obvious mistakes – this was clearly not a 覗き部屋 (peep room) but a ビデオボックス (private self-gratification room) – I suppose it would be tough to deliver the original meaning 100%, but I still had the strong impression that the spirit of the piece wasn’t getting across. I’d be interested in seeing the Japanese version, scheduled with a famous Japanese director/actor after Lepage completes his run. But I suspect that the piece is too Western in its cynicism and careless nihilism, as well as too complex in structure with the mixture of character types and such.

Archives: アンデルセン・プロジェクト (The Andersen Project)

7 July 2006 (Fri), Tokyo

The Japanese-language version of Lepage’s one-man show that I had seen two weeks earlier. Lepage simply left the set in place, and his role was taken over by Akira Shirai (白井晃), a noted actor/director. Since the original had depended so heavily on language (French/English), a knowledge of character types like the French bureaucrat and Lepage’s idiosyncratic performance, I was interested to see how this would be conveyed in a Japanese version. I also wanted another look at the show’s amazing technical features.

The result was interesting in a bad way, basically a testament to the shallow approach that Japanese often (too often) bring to their theatre work. Shirai showed no understanding whatsoever of any of the characters he was meant to be playing. This was clear from the opening 30 seconds in the address to the Paris Opera audience, where the speaker apologizes for the sudden cancellation of his work and explains the circumstances. This frames the show (which ends the same way as he brings the story to a close) and thus sets the tone for the entire evening. Lepage’s delivery was ironic, delivered with tongue firmly in cheek. He deadpanned, for example, that refunds wouldn’t be necessary for most of the viewers since they came for free – an apparent knock at socialites who come with invited tickets and care more about the event as such than what’s actually on stage. His winking presentation was a clue that the rest of the show should be taken in the same spirit.

In contrast, Shirai gave this address in deadly earnest fashion, depressed and deprived of any life. This isn’t necessarily wrong considering what he’s been through as revealed in the course of the show, but at this point in the drama it slows the proceedings badly and gives out entirely the wrong signals. Presented with an aura of utter seriousness and a speaker with no energy or interest, audiences immediately tune out. No one likes to see self-pity anyway, something that Lepage’s approach was able to avoid. This reminded me of the Japanese version of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, where the guys in the opening scene are also so solemn that they ruin the balance for the rest of the show. Moreover, Shirai or his translator didn’t seem to grasp the meaning of the lines. In the above case regarding the refunds, Shirai simply blurted through the passage without seeming to realize that it was supposed to be funny. The audience was left hanging as to why this was even mentioned at all, or why for that matter that some people had free tickets. Perhaps the lines themselves should have been enhanced or eliminated, but in any case the delivery squelched any possible hint of fun.

In terms of the main characters, the original production had a tremendous advantage in the language. There were immediate contrasts between the two main characters just from the fact that one spoke English and the other French (or French-accented English). I would have hoped for some kind of distinction in Shirai’s presentation that might approximate this, but there was none at all. The lines were all spoken in the same flat manner, so it was not clear from the delivery just who was supposed to be talking. I thought he could have at least tried speaking a broken Japanese to show the French-accented English of the bureaucrat, though Kakuji did not necessarily agree with this. Perhaps a different voice would have helped, or at the very least a different style of speaking. I was amazed at the lack of imagination that went into this. With no specific identifying characteristics for any of the characters, they all blended together in a flavorless whole, basically as faceless as the hooded character in the video box.

Poor translations also marred the whole, another sign that the translators were way over their heads. In the most blatant case, a carryover from the English version, they continued to use the phrase 覗き部屋 (peep room) to describe the video masturbation booths. How could that obvious error have slipped past the actor himself or the rest of the staff? The phrase simply doesn’t match what’s right in front of their eyes.

Lepage directed this production himself, and the show went smoothly enough from a technical standpoint. But I guess he simply couldn’t catch the Japanese nuance, much less the translation mistakes. Without a firm hand at the helm, this difficult show could go nowhere. And it got there quickly. At dinner afterwards, the three Japanese guys I went with were universal in their assessment: the show was simply boring. Having seen the English version, I tried to explain what the author was trying to get at, but theatre doesn’t work like that. It’s discouraging for a theatre buff like me to be confronted with the thin understanding (or misunderstanding) that the creative staff bring to the material in so many cases. If the Japanese only knew what they were missing.

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