'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in Japan

- Historical Overview -

Considering the recent popularity of the play, it may appear fairly strange to modern audiences and readers that it took almost forty years after the first Shakespeare production on the Japanese stage before A Midsummer Night's Dream was first staged by a professional theatre company. Yet it will not be difficult to guess possible reasons for this and for its unpopularity in the past. One likely reason would be that the play does not (or did not appear to) offer the information on Western civilisation that was sought after at the time of modernisation in the Meiji era. Another reason would be that the play has too many references to fairies and myths peculiar to Western culture. It can also be said that the play did not attract serious and elitist audiences, either because of its lightness or because of its lack of obvious reference to any political or social issues. (In spite of its popularity today, there are few academic books solely on A Midsummer Night's Dream either in English or in Japanese.) However, it must be noted at the same time that the play was frequently staged as a musical or revue from as early as the 1930s. It was probably because of its apolitical nature that MND was performed by Takarazuka Revue Company in 1940 in spite of wartime censorship, and because of its harmless entertainment value that it was staged in 1946, a year after Japan's defeat in World War II.

It is true that Peter Brook's revolutionary production of MND in Tokyo in 1973, along with other RSC visiting productions in 1970 and 1972, led to a "Shakespeare Boom" in the 70s; however, the play attracted less attention than Hamlet and other tragedies. It is thus noteworthy that Deguchi Norio's Shakespeare Theatre, which first produced MND in 1976, has staged the play repeatedly since then. At a time when not many shingeki productions of MND were being produced, the Haiyu-za Company's 1981 production could be said to be significant, for, unlike other shingeki company productions, it presented the play as a musical.

MND proliferated on the Japanese stage in the late 1980s and 1990s when the Little Theatre Movement showed a conspicuous penchant for the comedies, as predicted by Senda Akihiko in his book "The World Inclines Towards Comedy" (1985). Another reason for its popularity may be its capacity to accommodate radical re-writings. In 1989, one of the leading young companies of the Little Theatre Movement, The Third Stage, produced a MND set in contemporary Japan. This was followed by Theatre Cocoon's project to stage MND for five consecutive years, from 1990 to1994, with a different director each year. This MND project, which was inaugurated by Deguchi Norio's production in 1990, showcased a variety of interpretations by such talented Little Theatre directors as Kato Tadashi (1991), Endo Tatsuro (1992), Ikuta Yorozu (1993) and Kushida Kazuyoshi (1994). As shown in the chronology section, this period also witnessed other remarkable productions of the play, such as Noda Hideki's adaptation (1992), and Ninagawa Yukio's production set in a Japanese rock garden (1994).

Noda Hideki's A Midsummer Night's Dream picture 2 - see also 1, 3