Yukio Ninagawa returns to Herod Atticus Theater to settle old scores

Once upon a time, 21 years ago, a small group of theater aficionados brought to Athens’s Lycabettus Theater, in an almost cloak-and-dagger fashion, a Japanese production of Euripides’ «Medea» that was rife with oddities. Not only was the tragedy staged in Japanese, but tongues wagged about the fact that the director had incorporated methods from traditional Japanese Noh drama in an ancient tragedy, and was even reckless enough to have a man play the title role. The few who dared attend this «strange» performance, however, were left astounded and altered. The next day, the theater world of Athens was buzzing with rumors of «something incredible.» One year later, the same production was presented to rave reviews at the Herod Atticus Theater, having been brought there by the Athens Festival, and that was when most Greeks first heard of Yukio Ninagawa, the innovative director who bridged two ancient cultures for a modern audience and who has, since then, performed worldwide and received numerous awards. Ninagawa is coming back to the Herod Atticus this Thursday through Saturday to present a Cultural Olympiad production of Sophocles’ «Oedipus Rex,» a tragedy which, he says, has been very much at the front of his mind since his youth. Indeed, he first staged the play in Japan 28 years ago, at a time when his country saw very little ancient Greek drama. Ten years later, he directed an adaptation of the play by Mutsuo Takahashi – with Mikiyiro Hira in the title role and Greece’s Aspasia Papathanassiou playing Jocasta – and presented it outdoors, in Tokyo, in a temple courtyard. This year’s performance is of a Japanese translation which is faithful to the original text, by Harue Yamagata, and stars Mansai Nomura as Oedipus, Rei Asami as Jocasta and Kotaro Yoshida as Creon. What memories do you have from 20 years ago, when you staged «Medea» in Athens? The «Medea» performances in Greece were among the most memorable experiences of my life. I believe that, having been isolated then as a director in Japanese theater, Greece encouraged and inspired me. How many ancient Greek dramas have you directed? Three, namely «Oedipus Rex,» «Medea» and «Electra.» What compelled you to direct «Oedipus Rex» three times? As I have always failed, it is my battle to settle old scores. In the first staging of the play, you used a chorus of 160, in the second there were 80 and now we hear that there will be 20 members. Why the difference in number? Greek tragedies were staged very often in Japan. When I first staged «Oedipus Rex» in 1976, I also had the role of enlightening Japanese audiences about Greek tragedies. For that purpose, I recreated the audience seats of the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus on stage as a stage set and had actors, who were portrayed as the audience, perform the chorus. That was the reason I used a chorus of 160. However, I no longer need to enlighten Japanese audiences. On this occasion, I am trying with a 20-member chorus, as a challenge to the actors and as a theatrical adventure, to create an effect equivalent to using a large chorus. Are there other differences between this and the older staging of «Oedipus Rex»? I hope that the combination of theatrical language, the actors’ struggle for perfect performances and the dynamics of visual power will provide a skillful blend. How interested are you in contemporary plays? Are you less interested than in Shakespeare, to whom you have dedicated a large portion of your activity? I do not just stage plays by Shakespeare, I also stage dramas written by young Japanese playwrights. However, there are still plenty of things that we can learn from European drama. Are people in Japan interested in theater? Has theater in Japan suffered from television and the digital age? Although it has been influenced by television, film and music, I do not think theater in Japan is in decline. Should theater clearly and straightforwardly address the issues that are pertinent to the era or not? I do not think that such an approach is the sole mission of the theater, but I want to be a director who addresses issues that are pertinent to the era. Would you stage an anti-war performance? I would certainly do so if it were more than mere propaganda and had originality as a theatrical work. Yukio Ninagawa’s «Oedipus Rex» is on at the Herod Atticus Theater on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets, priced at 28, 38, 54, 79 and 90 euros, are available from the Hellenic Festival Box Office (39 Panepistimiou, tel 210.928.2900) or from the theater itself (box office open daily 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 6-9 p.m.).