Shakespeare Ensemble in Japan


In September 2019 The Shakespeare Ensemble, curated by Ben Crystal, journeyed to Japan to raise three shows in a week using original Shakespearian practices before touring them across the country to communities, universities and public theatres.

We gave workshops in communities where our participants’ ages ranged between 2-82. We learnt how to communicate without words and how to tell age-old stories that crack right to the heart of what it is to be human. As well as Associate Producing the tour with Ben, I got to play as Ophelia/Gravedigger, Capulet/Balthasar & Witch II/Lennox/Fleance/Gentlewoman. Unbelievable.

Warming up at the Shrine stage, Bessho Onsen: Photo taken by Ben Crystal

We were on this adventure to practice a craft. Many of Shakespeare’s original ensemble worked together for twenty years. They could raise a play in a day. They were masters of stagecraft and listening so that the only things pre-rehearsed in the show would have been dances and fights. They knew their parts, and indeed many of the parts were written with them in mind. Their memories were elastic from raising a new play every day, 6 days a week. We did not have 20 years and our ensemble is completely international which rules out regular play. However, we wanted to try to get as close as possible to Shakespeare’s way of making plays as possible.

In practice, this meant responding to each space we performed in afresh, leaning into what each space had to offer and acknowledging that the space is essentially the 11th member of the ensemble. Playing with and responding to the audience, there is no fourth wall in Shakespeare’s plays. Using the plaits to know where in the play you are and which scenes have off-stage effects (‘women screaming’ Bell, Thunder, knocking, etc). Using cue scripts which only have your role(s)words/actions and the queue line.

In order to be successful in this, the ensemble has to be listening to each other with all their whole body, they have to trust that each person will act for the ensemble rather than themselves, they have to be experts in their craft and understanding of space.
We took this experiment to Japan because in his previous visits Ben had noticed a Love of Craft ‘Shugi’ (refer to an Aesthetic of simple, subtle unobtrusive beauty) among the Japanese that was not really present in the English ‘Shakespeare scene’. The RSC and Globe theatre are experts in putting on big shows, but as Michael Billington notes on Front row on the 8.10.19 that the most Radical way to do Shakespeare now would be to perform without set, costume of frills and use the words and the imagination, not patronising the audience but trusting that they will understand. This was what we did.

The response was quite magical. Within the plays, I was constantly struck by how the Original pronunciation brought the language into the body and consequently how much more I understood. This makes sense because at the heart of Shakespeare’s plays is Heart and emotion which translates across time and culture as a core of human experience. Perhaps the modern fear that the audience will not understand which may in part lead to the flamboyant attempts to make a show regardless is what makes the audience unable to actually concentrate on the words and use their imaginations. What was fascinating from performing in Japan was that we deliberately went to communities who did not speak English, because we had a confidence that even if the audience didn’t understand all the words the feedback they would still understand the play. The drive of the characters and stagecraft necessary to show that was there. In multiple post-show Q & A sessions we were told, ‘you played from the heart to our hearts’.

It was an epic and extraordinary experience

For more details of our adventure see:

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