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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 15, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 41

Speaking In Tongues
Why a Thai-language version of a Japanese play is a hit - in Tokyo
By ISHIDA AYAKO Tokyo


The Red Demon and That Woman, the lead characters in Noda Hideki's Thai-language version of Akaoni
Setagaya Public Theater
Few plays are as potent in translation as they are in the original. Even fewer are more effective on home ground in an alien tongue. A Thai-language version of Akaoni (Red Demon) by theater iconoclast Noda Hideki is an exception. Tickets for its week-long run late last month - performed in Tokyo by actors from Thailand - were sold out as soon as the box office opened for bookings months earlier.

The mainly Japanese audience at the Setagaya theater took advantage of the simultaneous translation provided through individual headsets. But, as those who also saw the Japanese debut of Akaoni a couple of years ago might testify, the language barrier this time only helped to reinforce the theme of the work: how communities fear and discriminate against outsiders whom they cannot understand. That's quite an achievement for 44-year-old Noda, whose plays rely heavily on swift repartee, puns and quips.

Few thought such material could translate well. Neither did Noda, when the Japan Foundation first invited him to run a series of theater workshops in Thailand built around his Akaoni script and to follow that up with performances in Bangkok and Tokyo. Would his play be understood in its layers of complexity? Would he be able to find the right Thai cast for his favorite work? Noda needn't have fretted. He discovered that the local actors had a "radiance about their eyes" and lithe movements that "many Japanese lacked." Thirty applicants made the cut for his workshops, and from those Noda and co-director Nimit Pipitkul chose 15 to perform in Tokyo a couple of years ago. The production so surpassed expectations, the playwright and his sponsors decided to stage a second run in Japan.

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The plot is allegorical: An odd-looking creature is washed ashore at a seaside village where no one can understand him (Noda made up a fake language for the character). At first, fearful inhabitants steer clear of the newcomer in carmine-streaked clothes whom they call Red Demon. Only That Woman and her slow-witted brother, Tonbi, try to befriend him. When the villagers decide to kill the outsider over a misunderstanding, she comes to his defense - and suffers the consequences.

All this is conveyed with the imaginative staging, tightly choreographed movement and rapid-fire dialogue that are hallmarks of a Noda play. In Japanese, the swift conversation and shifting tones may even confuse local audiences. But with the Thai version, they can hear the Japanese dialogue through headsets. "It may be better this way," says Noda. It seems a little disorientation has its advantages.

The Thai cast found the set-up liberating too. "When we played in Thailand, I was very conscious of trying to speak clearly," explains Duangjai Hirunsri (the woman). "I was afraid the audience would not be able to follow the fast, lengthy dialogue. And the content is sometimes complicated." With a Tokyo audience, she says, all she had to do was concentrate on conveying emotion. Nat Nualpang, who plays her brother, got so carried away one evening, he fluffed his lines in the crucial final monologue. "But it turned out to be my best Tonbi performance ever," says Nat, "and got the greatest reaction from the Japanese audience." If he had been performing at home, he adds, the Thai audience would probably have been thrown by his jumbled speech.

The multi-talented Noda (he's also a skilled mime and actor) is often credited with reviving contemporary Japanese theater. Until the 1980s, most companies had been stuck in a creative rut. They staged anything from Chekov to facile Americana but came up with few original productions. Noda, a law-school dropout, introduced his high-energy productions in response to what he saw as a tendency in Japanese theater to substitute a snail-like pace for depth, and histrionics for acting. At first, critics disparaged his frenetic presentations as "amateurish horseplay." No more. Noda's plays still have plenty of zip, but now unfurl with a maturity and control that make them a treat. To fans, they combine the humor of Japan's traditional rakugo comedy with the power of ancient Greek dramas.

For the recent Akaoni production, however, Noda introduced a new element. After having stayed backstage in previous Thai-language shows, the playwright himself took on the title role, which had been played by a sturdily built British actor. That shifted the tension, he says, from an East-versus-West conflict to that between a community and a very different individual. Coming up on Noda's agenda: an English version of Akaoni - in Britain. "I want to see how the show changes, how people react differently when an alien comes into their midst," he says. He would be happy to bring his play "anywhere" - wherever he can hold up a mirror to prejudice and cruelty.

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