Monday, 4 February 2013

Anjin: The Shogun and The English Samurai - review

Written by: Alisdair Hinton (@AliHinton88)

Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

You might think a play that lasts in excess of three hours, covers the events of fifteen years and is performed in English and Japanese with subtitles sounds like it could be hard work, in the case of Anjin – The Shogun and the English Samurai you'd be right. Director Gregory Doran takes control of a difficult show in which the characters emotional journey's range from seemingly non-existent to incomprehensibly drastic, whilst the narrative manages to be both overly simplistic and simultaneously impossible to follow. So where does it all go wrong?
Photo: Takayuki Abe 
First of all, it should be fascinating. It is astonishing given the nature of the source material that the story here appears to be so mundane. Anjin features at its centre William Adams: wrecked on the shores of Japan in the year 1400, he is one of a handful of survivors from a Dutch trade ship. At first his life is in danger; accused of being a heretic by the local Jesuit priests, Adams avoids crucifixion and goes on to become a personal samurai and confident of the Shogun of Japan. The friendship that forms between these two men from such different cultures sees them forced to question their most fundamental beliefs concerning faith, life, death, home and love. The friendship should be gripping, but it isn't. The politics that surround it could also be fascinating, given that most audiences presumably won’t be experts in this tumultuous period in Japanese history. At times moments of intrigue do poke their way through the general wash of disgruntled rival leaders continuously attempting to overthrow the current shogun. However, all too often the action loses meaning altogether, as the intricacies of the family politics on display prove unfathomable.

The performances are odd, with various actors seeming so distanced from their words that at times it looks as though they are deliberately playing a sort of detached picture book style. The staging too is wildly inconsistent; a fascinating and visually exciting opening tableau involving live action, multimedia projection and shadow puppetry promises so much but quickly gives way to a very traditional and uninteresting series of predominantly naturalistic scenes. Only occasionally will the projection return, on each occasion feeling more and more out of sync with the rest of the play. Watching Anjin it looks increasingly as though what is on stage is not the story a writer desperately wanted to tell or an adaptation a director was in love with but more an unsuccessful attempt to deliver a history lesson, which it appears could be exactly the case. The play is being performed as part of a celebration of 400 years of Anglo-Japanese trade and as it goes on it can only really be understood in this context. 

Photo: Takayuki Abe
In September last year Director Gregory Doran was made the new Artistic Director of the RSC, due reward for one of the worlds most consistent and exciting directors, but here he is fighting a losing battle from the start. The problems come from a text that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be: epic history lesson or small-scale personal drama, not that both are unachievable but here the feel lurches violently from one to the other never fully committing to either. The problem is not the setting, length, subtitles or subject matter. As Director Robert Lepage has proven time and again, it is possible to tell very long stories in many languages that concern themselves with similar themes of cultural conflict and personal turmoil whilst all the time keeping the audience on side.

Anjin, isn’t terrible, it’s just boring. It is neither exciting nor offensive, but treads the tedious line of benign and uninspiring that makes for one of the most frustrating nights possible in the theatre, made all the worse because it could be so much more. 

This production runs until 9 February 2013. 

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