Notes on the World Theatre Festival Shizuoka 2017

The World Theatre Festival Shizuoka is an annual event run by the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center under the direction of Satoshi Miyagi. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

There are two shows in particular that I want to highlight: While I Was Waiting by Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar and Miyagi's production of Antigone.

While I was Waiting was directed by Omar Abusaada with a company of actors from Damascus. Inspired by interviews with Damascene residents, the story follows a young man called Taim who suffers a severe beating at a checkpoint in the city, leaving him in a comatose state.The play opens in Taim’s hospital room, where he “returns” to haunt family and friends gathered at his bedside. With overtones of Hamlet and Macbeth, Taim walks around the stage, invisible to his loved ones, observing their behaviour and listening to their stories of everyday life in the besieged Syrian capital.

However, unlike Hamlet’s father or the ghost of Banquo, Taim has not yet shuffled off this mortal coil, rather, he is a silent observer, a witness who exists in a liminal space between life in its conscious and unconscious forms. Abusaada creates this space by using a simple platform that overlooks the hospital room. Taim speaks from the platform through a microphone, commenting on his own experience and on the actions of the characters below. Ladders enable him to move between these two worlds of the play.

Scene from “While I Was Waiting”. Photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage.

The horror of the coma is not knowing how “temporary” its state will be. In this sense, Taim is a metaphor for the (S)tate of present day Syria (and beyond): who are the “living”? What does it mean to exist under continual oppression? Is this not itself the basis of a coma — the shut down of the nervous system — and can it ever be “reset”?

Liminality seemed to be the ordre du jour yesterday. In the evening I saw Satoshi Miyagi’s production of Antigone in an open-air theatre in Shizuoka City’s (sumptuous) Sumpu Castle Park.

The show was in many ways a master class in directing. The structure of Greek Tragedy, 3 actors + chorus, fits the bunraku-noh-style speaker/mover division that Miyagi revives in this production — more so than it did for his version of The Winter’s Tale earlier this year (although in that production it worked well to highlight the death of Leonte’s ego — shattering the mirror of State-power that his narcissism and agressivity are built on).

Using this speaker/mover split, Miyagi puts the “movers” — Antigone, Ismene, Creon, Haemon and Teirisias — front of stage. Their “speaker” counterparts become their shadows back stage and double up as the chorus. Further behind these disembodied voices is the company’s virtuoso percussion ensemble, whose mix of conga, djembe and steel drums give the production its thumping heartbeat.

The entire cast, dressed in white insect-like costumes, seems to float on a stage filled with water, a tranquil sheen ruptured in 3 places by protruding rock formations. Antigone and Ismene play out their predicament on the central rock. Creon orders his harsh decree forbidding burial rites for Polynices from the right side rock, while on the left, Haemon and Teirisias appear at different times to warn the despotic king of his misguided actions.

The Zen garden aesthetic, which inspires the set design, opens the religious dimension that is central to the production. It creates a Buddhist referential frame, in which the living and the dead become parts of the same symbolic space, lost souls wandering on the knife edge of existence. Miyagi reads the divisions that cut through many of today’s bloody conflicts as predicated on religious lines — particular Islam, Christianity and Judaism — lines that separate faiths, forge factions within faiths, and help maintain the concepts of good and evil or heaven and hell that perpetuate violence.

In this production, the power that Creon commands, deathly serious and condemnable though it is, seems as fleeting as the ripples in the body of water that surrounds him. That’s the big difference with the matinee production from Syria. The one works with violence as a poetic device, while the other responds to violence as an everday occurence. Still, Antigone’s opposition to this abuse of authority is no less poignant within this frame. Miyagi exploits the distancing effect that his mover/speaker dichotomy creates to foreground the moral and existential consequence of her acts of resistance. The “mover” Antigone is played by the company’s lead actress, Micari, whose pale, thin body, shrouded in a white veil, scales the central rock, contorting and grimacing under the weight of the sacrifice that the “speaker” Antigone describes.

Far from playing the role of victim, in the play’s pivotal scene, Antigone towers over Creon and the chorus of Athens below, to announce her choice of death. In this moment, we see Creon just as Haemon describes him, “a good monarch of the desert”, a mere mortal on an island, who like all the others is destined to cross the waters of Acheron and enter into the underworld — equal in death. This latter sentiment is embodied in the production’s final scene by the entire cast, in the form of a slow Bon-odori dance. Bon-odori is a stylistic group dance performed annually in Japan on the 15th of August as part of Buddhist rites to commemorate the dead. In this production, the dance is performed, almost Butoh-like in the stillness of its movements, in stark contrast to the boom and bust of the fast-paced drumming from the orchestra behind.

Does the Buddhist model offer a way out of the stagnant cycle of division that holds so much land in deadlock today? In theory, perhaps, but in practice history tells us that monastic Buddhists can be just as divisive and oppressive as other agents operating under the spectre of religious fundamentalism. From Thailand and Myanmar to Sri Lanka and Japan, there is a history of Buddhist nationalists calling for and at times enacting violence despite the core values and wisdom of Buddhist teachings. As Denis Diderot once put it, “The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.”

Nonetheless, what Miyagi’s framing of Antigone does well is to open spaces for reflection on the moral dilemmas that confront its characters. By detaching the actors voices from their bodies, the production is peppered with gaps between language and movement, between logos and pathos, into which the audience is invited to pour its thoughts, make connections with current crises, and in a very Brechtian way, ask what is the Antigone and Creon in me?

Miyagi’s show will headline this year’s Avignon Festival at the Palais des Papes, marking a significant milestone in an astonishing body of work.