Friday 1 February 2013

Theatre review: Anjin

Loosely tying in to the "A World Elsewhere" season currently in Stratford-upon-Avon, Gregory Doran has finally brought his 2009 project, the Anglo-Japanese Anjin, to the UK, where it's playing a short season at Sadler's Wells having had some success in Japan. Mike Poulton and Shoichiro Kawai adapt the true story of William Adams (Stephen Boxer,) who in 1600 was the first Englishman to go to Japan. Arriving on a Dutch ship, Adams almost falls foul of the Spanish Jesuits who have been converting the locals (and who still remember the Armada) but he's saved by the Regent, Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masachika Ichimura.) Adams' superior knowledge of cannons helps win an important battle and sees Tokugawa reward him with rank and land, the Englishman eventually becoming one of his most trusted friends.

Anjin is performed in English and Japanese by the multinational cast, with surtitles in both languages. I had expected the epic adventure to at least look impressive, and Yuichiro Kanai's set, Lily Komine's costumes and Taiki Ueda's video projections don't disappoint on that score. (The horse on wheels is a bit silly, but Ichimura imbues it with a dignity of his own to make up for it.) I had been less sure that the performance itself would hold my attention (I hadn't originally planned to see this but it was suggested by Japan-obsessed friends) but was pleasantly surprised on the storytelling front as well.

Though the visuals and the creatives are predominantly Japanese, the Britishness of the writing and direction come through very clearly, with a particularly welcome surprise being the amount of humour sprinkled throughout the play. Yuki Furukawa as a convert-turned-priest who harbours a longing to be a samurai has some memorably funny scenes, as well as providing another friendship with Adams that spans the play's duration, acting as his conscience in some ways, and his development over the years is an interesting subplot.

And Tokugawa makes for a fascinating character - initially appointed regent to Hideyori Toyotomi, the 7-year-old heir, his power ends up greater than he ever intended, with himself and his heirs becoming Shogun. But though Hideyori himself is loyal to him, he is used as a figurehead by various rebellious lords who want to oust Tokugawa and restore the Toyotomis. The years of civil war come to a head in a dramatic scene where the now 70-year-old and retired Shogun has to decide the fate of the last of the Toyotomi family.

"Epic" tends to mean "long," and at over three hours Anjin does outstay its welcome a bit and could do with a bit of trimming. The battle scenes are impressively choreographed but are a bit confusing at times (especially as there's quite frequent costume changes, and from the gods we couldn't really see faces clearly so weren't always sure who was fighting who.) But the show is generally surprisingly entertaining and emotionally involving throughout. The publicity talks about the merging of very different acting traditions but actually I thought Doran had brought things together in a way that doesn't feel like there's a clash of styles at all. Certainly one for anyone with an interest in Japan and aspects of its history most people here don't know that much about.

Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai by Mike Poulton with Shoichiro Kawai is booking until the 9th of February at Sadler's Wells.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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