Gary Raymond discusses National Theatre Wales’ first International Assembly in Tokyo, commenting on Wales’ role in the global arts scene.
The bigger picture was always going to be a fundamental reason for National Theatre Wales to take on this ambitious project of installing a Welsh-led theatrical event into the heartland of Japanese theatre. In its short history, an important aspect of most NTW productions has been the idea of each performance’s parallel project, The Assembly; a community-led dramatic experience that nurtures an exploration of one or several issues important to the local community in which the main production is being performed.
The Assembly projects are sub-headed as ‘Democratically-Elected Creative Arts Projects’, and are best exemplified by community-collaborative events in Wales, such as when the people of Machynlleth devised a way to express the many different views on the fore-coming shadows of Tesco to their town. In Japan it was always going to be a more complex set-up, and, unlike in the many Assemblies that have been held across Wales in the last few years, the subject matter was never going to be able to grow out of the community itself. Logistically it was too much. But The Opportunity of Efficiency raised some issues that were clearly relevant to the concerns of all Japanese in post-Fukushima Tokyo. The legacy of the nuclear disaster was a palpable subtext to so many conversations with Japanese people that went on during my week in the city.
But apart from the organic nature of the original idea, the Japan International Assembly is run closely to the schedule and format of its Welsh predecessors. It is a devised project, worked out over a three to four week period, in this case with student actors from the National Theatre programme, and led by NTW director Abdul Shayek.
The dramatic spine for this exploration of community (the future of energy and the environment) is the proposition that a new and life-sustaining planet has been discovered within reasonable travelling distance from Earth. Teams around the world are brainstorming ways in which to establish communities upon this planet; this International Assembly being the Tokyo leg. The core of the narrative is purposely ludicrous, and it works to both tie the participants to a sense of creative freedom as well as instilling a sense of fun to the proceedings that many other devices would almost certainly have lacked. As the evening progresses, however, it becomes clear that these issues have the power in the post-Fukushima mind to cut through the outlandish nature of the narrative constructs, and, pleasingly, it makes for some very heated debate.
The emphasis on this International Assembly is on interaction. The large audience is split into four and rotated around the cast members, who act as scientist-guides, complete with lab coats and clipboards. Chie Kinoshita was authoritative in charge of Efficiency, Satoshi Imai held a confident workshop on Energy, Sogo Nishimura was very entertaining on the Environment, and Sakura Hinuma had the difficult task of ring-leading the debate on Economics. The performances, largely improvised, are convincing enough for some audience members to push the actors into the darker corners of their supposed areas of expertise. In the economics forum, where the group discuss the propositions for the financial bedrocks of the new planet systems, Sakura Hinuma was cut short in her introduction of the idea of banning stocks and shares. One gentleman pointed out that the stock market can also include the wealth of estates, so you have to be careful what you’re banning. Undeterred by the encouraging, if muddying, immersion of the audience member into the debate, Sakura firmly retorted: ‘Let me be absolutely clear: what we are discussing here is the banning of invisible currency.’ The gentleman took the point gracefully, and the parameters of debate were effortlessly redrawn. But the point, for myself as an observer rather than a participator, was the swiftness of shift from immersive theatre-of-sorts to real time interactive debate. It was a marker for a resoundingly successful evening on that front.
Another group were working on a town-planning exercise. This involved the sequential compiling of a map, followed by the erection of buildings such as amenities and homesteads, made from origami. The interesting thing was that all four groups rotating between workshops quickly began to devise towns that were very similar to the ones in which we already live. They were based at rivers, had schools, hospitals, public transport; the opportunities on offer from a clean slate were barely considered. The one of the four towns to put all of the functional buildings beneath the ground, including schools, hospitals, rail network, was the only town to erect an electricity pylon on the surface, somewhat besmirching the seeming aesthetic ideals that the town-planners originally had.
In the conversations about energy, again, a sameness – wide as well as deep – came to the fore. We pay too much for our energy. We cannot sustain the current levels of usage. The future must look at different sources. This also fed into economic debate: the global financial crisis was not the cause of a freak and cosmological conflagration of circumstances. Rather, people are to blame – certain individuals took advantage of their position and, as yet, they have not answered for their crimes. If the Assembly had the chance to prove anything, it was that there is universal opinion that the higher echelons of society have exploited the rest of us to breaking point. I have heard the same argument across the UK, and beyond. The resentments of the Japanese are made of the same stuff.
The important effect that NTW’s Assemblies have to have, as Abdul Shayek explained to me, is that when NTW dismantle their equipment and depart the scene they leave behind the conversation they have helped start. It seems that in Tokyo, the conversation had already been happening, before, even, the disaster at Fukushima. But the Assembly has given a part of that community – a cross section, by the look of them – the chance to focus that discussion and carry it on with a road to walk down. At the climax, when the audience are asked to stick on the floor of the auditorium notes on which they have written what they would take to the new planet, and what they would leave behind, I find my translator reading to me that the ‘take with’ notes are overwhelmingly creative in nature. Art, theatre, books, love, poetry; that is what these people value (and cats). And what was the most popular item left behind? Nuclear power. A message from a country that has been forced to examine the balance between the benefits and dangers.
The International Assembly was, at its essence, a soup made up of individuals’ relationship to their environment. Throughout, what was addressed was a connection between aesthetics and modern needs: something in which Tokyo as a living city is struggling to find a footing. Tokyo is a city that has little time for its past, and so is now unsure of what its future looks like, after the disaster. The tactics of the Assembly made this glow.
If the conversation is being left behind in Tokyo, it is going to have a long afterlife as, there, the question of efficiency is also one about the future and the past of the national psyche. National Theatre Wales, should be proud it has had the opportunity to a play a part in the forming of that conversation, as it could become a conversation that affects the entire world.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster.