Alan Harris was the playwright behind National Theatre Wales’ first ever production, A Good Night Out in the Valleys, and now he’s back having written the company’s first ever international collaboration. Gary Raymond spoke with him in Tokyo about the experience and challenges of creating The Opportunity of Efficiency.
GR: I suppose the most intriguing element of this whole project is how the translation process worked, taking into account the nuanced differences between the two cultures.
AH: At one stage of the translation I compiled a glossary. I went through all aspects of the play that I thought might be problematic to [Nagashima] Kaku, the translator. All those references that might not come across to a Japanese audience. So somewhere there is this five page glossary that exists.
For this to be the first international collaboration for NTW, it is the most ambitious they could have been.
Yeah, if we were in Belgium it would have been easier.
There are no real western cultural reference points in common at the root of this, are there?
You have to come to an understanding; you have to trust your translator. You have to have a shared idea of what the play is about, globally, never mind when you get down the nitty gritty of language and traditions. But there are some difficult elements in the transition. There’s a scene where Ken Lomax is talking to Mr Grant, and, of course, Mr Grant is older and in a more senior position to Ken. And because of the nature of Ken – and he’s going through a difficult time in his life at the point when we meet him in the play, and he’s not particularly deferential to Mr Grant – this confused Kaku a bit; that Ken would speak this way to Mr Grant. So we had a situation where there were two translations of the same scene: one which was very Japanese and one which was how it was in the original script. That was the first difference we came up against.
You wrote this specifically for this project, didn’t you?
I did. It was the result of much consultation and discussion, but it’s not a play by committee. When the producers came over the first time to Wales and I had a meeting with them, I prepared to give a presentation with a series of slightly connected ideas of what the play I was to write would look like. So the meeting was going quite well, and we were getting along and I decided I wasn’t going to mention the ideas I had prepared. It seemed like the conversation was moving away from that point. It was going well. And then when it came to the end, one of the producers said to me, ‘So, these ideas you have!?’ and pulled their notebooks and pencils out. So I thought, ‘oh, god, here we go.’ So I got out the ideas and showed them to them and they translated them and really liked them, but none of those ideas formed the play we ended up with.
So it wasn’t a case of them choosing the play they wanted from a list of ideas? It was more organic than that.
No, it wasn’t like that. After that it was all down to thinking about the fact that I was writing something for two national theatres. I knew I was writing for this stage, and I knew that it had to be about characters but also that it had to have a larger impact than just a personal drama. Within that I think the real drama does come from those personal relationships, within that bigger idea.
I felt the important aspect of the play is that it’s about the characters; it’s an ensemble piece.
I think Japan is a country in transition, and it’s a country that has a lot of choices to make now about what it does regarding energy and how it moves forward after Fukushima. With subjects like that it’s very difficult to tackle them head on, and that can be a bit boring, too. So once you come at it side-on you can connect the ideas to the audience more successfully.
Did the overarching themes – energy, globalisation, abuse of power – of the play come from the Japanese connection?
Yeah – when we came over last year I kind of had the structure of a story. I had the idea of a biotech lab, and when we came into the theatre and saw that it could be done in the round and it could be like a goldfish bowl I could imagine the office and the pressures and what if somebody discovered something in there that was much bigger than that office? To break out of the goldfish bowl. At that point I began thinking of what if somebody discovered a cure for radiation sickness – what would that mean? Not only to Japan, but to the people who wouldn’t want it – the oil producers, the gas producers, car manufacturers. So it was interesting to play around with that idea. And how far can you push efficiency before it impinges on other things?
Did you think there was something to be done with this Japanese idea of efficiency? It seems to me that Japan works so well as a unit that the deficiencies – and every society has them – are almost certainly human and personal.
That does come through in the play, I think. There’s no clutter. Ken is a man who has sacrificed everything bar the bare essentials. Whether or not you can live like that in the long term, I don’t know.
A few people have said to me that there’s two Japans – the one you see as a visitor and then the one behind closed doors. And I don’t think you could really dig into that other Japan without spending a lot of time here.
Do you think you’re wedging into that experience by bringing your play into Japan’s theatrical world?
I hope so. We’ve had lots of comments about how a play like this hasn’t been seen here before. The themes and the feel – the feel of it in the round. But I think people in the audience – I hope – can identify with the characters and their dilemmas. They are personal dilemmas. Jasper and Jenny – will they, won’t they get together? And then there are these bigger questions around it.
Are you pushing for the play to be put on in Wales?
I don’t know if it will be. There are no plans at the moment although John and I have talked about it. Of course, as the writer, I’d like to see it put on.
You could retranslate it back from the Japanese.
Yes! Through Google. That would be interesting. I think it might crash.
What did you think about the idea of the play being for National Theatre Wales but only being performed on the other side of the world?
I think it’s great that we’re getting out there. The stuff that goes on in Wales is great, and the stuff that Welsh companies put on in England is great, but we don’t often even have much a relationship with the rest of Europe, never mind further afield than that. So I think it’s a sign of, not just a national theatre, but a sign of how a nation grows. The growth of its culture is the growth of a nation, and you do that by making these links and going abroad. Scotland has done it and Ireland has done it.
I think it’s even more important for Wales, for it to step away from its perceived connection to England.
And there’s a parallel with Japan. We are both exporters of culture. Japan is a big exporter, more so than it used to be. Less so with the nuts and bolts of manufacturing. And that’s the exact same case with Wales. And theatre should be a part of that. We’ve exported a lot of culture but not exported a lot of theatre. It should at least be a slice.
It’s important not just for writers, but for directors, lighting engineers, actors. The whole thing. I did a talk at the drama studio here in Tokyo, and one of the producers who has spent time in Wales was saying how envious she is of our facilities and how she’d love to have those facilities in Tokyo. So we have great institutions but we need to export more. Wales is not known as a place where great theatre is made, so we need to get the word out.
What were your long-term goals when getting involved in this collaboration?
Theatre should go outwards. But from my point of view, as a playwright; I like to write stories. And it was a great challenge to be asked to write for the National Theatre in Japan. What comes of it eventually? I don’t know. I don’t know what the NTW strategy is.
It’s unfair to ask a writer that question, really; someone who spends most of their working life sitting alone in a room trying to work out stories.
But I do think it’s important for us as a country to export, and to export our theatre. And I think the base, provided by NTW, has gotten stronger and stronger over the last couple of years.
So what’s it like being back at National Theatre Wales?
It’s great to work with John again; we work well together. Script-wise and ideas-wise we work well. It’s strange then being removed from the stage managers and the Welsh theatres.
How difficult has the process been?
Well, it was unusual for the writer to be at rehearsals, mainly because in Japanese theatre the writer and the director are the same person. So they were finding it unusual to work with a separate director and a separate writer. And, of course, a lot of the English language productions they do over here are plays which have been done elsewhere. There isn’t really a tradition of plays from abroad premiering in Tokyo. New plays will come here, but as part of an international tour. So it comes with a success behind it, in London or New York or wherever.
So that’s another interesting thing NTW have done.
Yeah, to premier a foreign show here is extremely unusual. So normally I’d be in rehearsals for the first week or so and then come back toward the end, but that’s hasn’t been possible in Tokyo for obvious reasons. I caught the last week of rehearsals, which was good, actually. But before that all of the questions have been via email. So that was difficult. But when I went into the rehearsal room it felt like a rehearsal room, so I don’t think anything was really different for the actors too much, which is the important thing.
John was coming to me with lists of question from the actors during the process, the only difference was I’d normally be in the room to answer them. They were normally questions on motivation etc. the usual thing. And it normally came down to the wording, how it came across in translation.
Humour was the interesting thing. Kaku did an early translation that had less of that humour in it. But we went over it and tweaked the language so there was more of that original humour in it.
A lot of the humour is character-based, it’s behavioural. So it must have been tough to translate a certain verbal sense of humour to a different culture. It’s not just getting the wording right but culturally getting it right.
Yeah, it was complicated, but there were some big laughs.
There were some big laughs. So you got it right.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis