Terrace of the Leper King (ライ王のテラス )

ライ王のテラス (Terrace of the Leper King)

3 March 2016 (Thurs), Tokyo

15 March 2016 (Tues), Tokyo

Tickets to Miyamoto Amon’s production of this Mishima work, its first large-scale revival in over 40 years, were completely sold out on the strength of its rising star Suzuki Ryohei (helped by a great poster with the sculpted Ryohei sitting shirtless front and center). I had read the play and couldn’t make much sense of the rambling theme, but the story itself was certainly dramatic. Also, the Cambodian setting offered promising design possibilities, and Amon had brought in dancers from the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and acrobats from a traditional Cambodian circus called Phare. I was ready for anything.

Summarizing the story very simply, the young and dynamic Jayavarman VII, a legendary Khmer king coming off a great conquest, has ordered his builders to construct a new temple, which we know today as the Bayon (the amazing one with all the mysterious faces). The planned structure is highly controversial, such as the placement of the main terrace in an inauspicious direction, but the confident king is determined. After some years, the work is progressing smoothly, but the king has become afflicted with leprosy – in a Dorian Grey touch, his body is deteriorating as the building is getting more beautiful. His mother, unable to accept the physical erosion of her flawless son, wants to kill him while he is still in his glory (shades of Kinkakuji). She orders his devoted second wife to poison him within ten days, prompting the wife to run and hide. The king is furious at the belief he has been abandoned because of his condition, and lashes out at his second wife for her hypocrisy. Eventually all is resolved when the mother melodramatically confesses her scheme. In the end, the king, on his death bed, is subject to a rather bizarre discussion between his body and soul in which each declares that it is the one that will survive. The argument in the end seems to tilt toward the body, implying (I think) the physical structure of the Bayon versus the imagination that created it.

Mishima knows how to build tension and pits several memorable characters against each other in a strong driving plot. But his obsessions, especially with the beautiful ideal vs. ugly reality theme, get the better of him in some cases. The evil plot hatched by the mother is resolved simply by having her emerge before everyone and confess out of guilt – surely the author could have come up with a plot device like a fight or unintended remark that might have brought the information out more naturally. This reminded me of those clumsy last-minute confessions in Kabuki (Mishima was a big fan). And there was an out-of-nowhere whipping scene where the mother lashes out with a whip at an evil official making advances on her son’s second wife, only to turn around and kiss him and threaten the daughter (all, by the way, seen conveniently by a worker in the shadows). What was all that about?

Among numerous such oddities, the most confusing was the final debate between the king’s body and soul. I had fully expected the soul to come out on top, i.e., the products of our imagination live even after the body dies, a simple enough concept. The famously body-building-fixated Mishima, though, seemed to be saying that it is the body that survives and the soul that dies. If that’s supposed to be literal, he might be saying that it is the physical and material that remain, say, the Bayon or the image of the king (perhaps photos or memories?), while the soul can never truly be known once it’s gone. But Amon’s take was that it is only the present moment (Bayon) that matters, while the past and future don’t exist or are of no concern. Either way, Mishima doesn’t present his argument in a coherent or convincing way. I suppose that the fact that we have no idea what he was thinking is proof for his theory that the spirit disappears, with only the words and stage directions left behind.

In any case, the show could not have had a better production. The opening featured a procession of pilgrims onto the empty stage who sat facing upstage and intoned a prayer in Cambodian, an evocative way to bring us into the Siem Riep setting. It reminded me somewhat of Ninagawa’s Macbeth opening but made more sense this time in the context of the show.

The performances were largely naturalistic with none of the constant nervous movement that plagues Japanese theater, helped by unexpectedly strong acting by some of the cast. The numerous elements of fancy were woven skillfully and unobtrusively into the story, like the king’s dream with the gymnast and dancers swirling around his head and feet (and then disappearing effortlessly into the dark), or the fantasy figures lowered from the ceiling on various occasions, or the smoky pit into which the first wife leaps into the flames, or the dying king who crawls into a box as the “soul” and suddenly reemerges as his still-beautiful half-naked “body” in a different part of the stage. The effects were all in service to the story and superbly executed. The only exception to the rule was the visit by the Chinese merchants, which was way overplayed in the usual horrid attempt at forced humor. While true that it’s built into the script, the overacting was not. But those were minor characters who were tangential to the plot. The characters in the story otherwise were handled with great skill.

Ryohei proved to be a terrific actor, commanding the stage whenever he appeared. He was not only physically right for the role of the perfect king thanks to his height (186cm) and jaw-dropping body – in a show where the perfection of the body is a crucial plot point – but radiated self-assurance in his brash delivery and movement. He also had a resonant and booming voice that worked for the role. I honestly had expected him just to go through the motions, which would be enough for most of his audience, but he threw himself into the role with utter conviction. He was every inch a king. He’s definitely found his role. Both of his wives held their own as well. The second wife was a fairly standard character but very well handled by Kurashina Kana (倉科カナ). The first wife was played by a former man (Ataru Nakamura 中村 中), i.e., a trans-woman whose voice seems to have missed the estrogen boat. I wasn’t sure how that was going to come off, but the performer played it straight (as it were) and managed to create a plausible character that was all his/her own. Ohtori Ran (鳳蘭) was playing herself, as usual, but did well enough as the queen mother. The only detriment to the show was Jinbo Satoshi (神保悟志) as the villainous official, who might as well have been wearing a handlebar moustache and black hat. He reminded me of the actor who played Jaffar’s unfunny wisecracking accomplice in Shiki’s Aladdin. A shame they couldn’t have found someone with a bit more shading. He and Ohtori Ran were essentially a Kabuki couple in a modern (well, 1960s modern) play. (NOTE: Ohtori Ran improved notably the second time around, addressing people directly in dialogues rather than proclaiming out to the audience. Physically a good fit for the domineering mother role, she seemed much more in tune with the rest of the cast after two weeks of performances.)

The dancers were fantastic and appeared in just the right doses. They added greatly to the feel of the piece and sense of place, especially in the long dance with those amazing finger movements. (Their choreography was apparently traditional dances, which the Japanese team was not allowed to alter.) The gymnast had some breathtaking moments of his own, especially the dream sequence when he defied gravity in balancing himself on the back of the chair. These performers substantially enriched the show.

There was additional help from the wonderfully moody lighting effects as well as the excellent costumes by a Cambodian designer. The play was firing on all cylinders.

I had not expected this intricately imagined production at all, which brilliantly brought the script to life – it actually makes the show seem much better than it reads. I still don’t know what Mishima was trying to say, but this production makes a great case for the show itself. While Kinkakuji was more satisfying thematically, this production was much better realized from start to finish. An outstanding work.

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