A reflection on the remarkable career of the playwright, director, and performer Hideki Noda whose recent production “A Night at the Kabuki” (Romeo and Juliet set to the music of Queen) performed a sold-out run at Sadler Wells.
What was it like to bring A Night at the Kabuki to London after all this time?
Five minutes after the show began, I went backstage and was able to pause, take in the response, and realize how positive and strong the reaction from the British Audience was. My image of British Audiences is slightly tightlipped, reserved, and quiet so I was very happy to see the work welcomed in such a warm way.
How has the way you work with performers and your overall rehearsal process changed over the years?
In 1993 I went to London to study Theatre. Coming back to Japan, I was really interested in bringing the concept of workshops that I encountered there back home with me. It was uncommon in my country at the time. I started a new theatre production company, Noda Map, each time working with new and different actors. Workshops became very central and significant to the work I was doing. Often before writing plays, I will do a workshop to draw inspiration from. For example, I’ll divide the actors into groups, assign questions or themes for them to explore, and then let them start to create. I will guide them gradually in the right direction but it’s really a collaborative endeavor.
What is a guiding principle or maxim that one of your most dedicated and talented peers taught you?
Kathryn Hunter was incredibly persistent in her quest for logic, constantly asking me “Why? Why? Why?” “Why” is not a common word thrown around in a Japanese rehearsal room so this was a wonderful learning experience for me as it would force me to think about the text I wrote and the justifications for individual lines. Returning home to Tokyo, working with Japanese actors, I now tell them to always ask why?
What advice do you give to actors?
First and foremost, I tell them to have fun. A Japanese perspective or advice would be to deeply concentrate. When I worked with Kathryn Hunter, she’d often be in the dressing room or toilet running her lines just before going on. She is a great example of this necessary concentration.
What do your favorite actors DO, UNDERSTAND, and EMBODY?
It’s always nice when a performer makes me enjoy the work. If I enjoy their acting, it’s likely the audience will. My favorite actors always enjoy themselves as well.
What might put you off about an actor you audition or work with?
Narcissism, though is of course involved in the nature of acting. But when an actor is onstage only concerned with themselves and their own performance, that is off-putting. It’s also hard to deal with actors who make all their decisions about timing, blocking, and delivery ahead of time. I want to tell those actors: “Well, I guess we don’t need to rehearse then.”
What are you always looking for when an actor walks into an audition?
I want to hear their voices. Actors' voices are very important, some actors' voices sound like lies, and you don’t believe what they’re saying. It’s not their voice's fault but the sound is very important.
What other directors have inspired you and your work?
Peter Brook, Simon McBurney, and Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa.
Many UK directors follow Katie Mitchell’s book or similar practices: breaking everything down into units, beats, events, actioning, etc. What does table work look like In your room?
We start with games. I want everyone to feel like an equal contributor, I want them to be at ease and feel free to share opinions from the beginning. Relaxation is also very important to the work. We begin in a circle, reading texts. Then I divide the text into four or five parts, each group discussing a part as equal collaborators. Before the physical work comes into play, we do lots of etude work and work on concepts of movement like slow motion and center of gravity. How can you step or glide or slide along the floor with your feet? I sometimes give quite technical notes to actors about their movements. Then, in two hours' time we start to showcase after which we will discuss. We’re always refining as we go along.
Can you share a little about a failure in your artistic career?
In 2003, I brought Red Demon to London’s Young Vic for the first time. It was my first experience directing British Actors. I got harsh, terrible reviews. At the time I was confused and wondered why? But upon reflection, I realized we only had about three weeks of rehearsal, I couldn’t speak English very well then, and so I couldn’t talk about the text as quickly as the British actors could…they were all “talk, talk, talk” but ultimately I think its failure was due in large part because I tried to imitate London’s style of directing. Afterwards, I realized I was mistaken to try and imitate their style and be something I wasn’t. In 2006, when I returned to London and directed The Bee with Kathryn Hunter, I followed my Japanese style, and it was received much more positively. That initial experience was challenging and yet important to instil in me my own way of doing things.
What does the next artistic chapter of your life hold? What are you looking forward to?
I think I’m on my final chapter, artistically. But I think international cultural exchange is lacking in Tokyo, we don’t have, for example, an international festival in Tokyo which is a pity. I would like to invite an international company to our theatre. I would like our theatre to be a hub for that. I also have a couple of scripts and productions that I am hoping to adapt and create.
In this digital age, what is the value of theatre?
The theatre incorporates technology but it is ultimately based on the body and physicality of actors. Human anatomy has remained, since ancient times, relatively the same. Human beings perform before other human beings, this ancient art and craft have been pursued forever, to initiate empathy and feeling or simply to entertain. I don’t think our desire for this will ever change.
Interview by Matthew Pierce