In 1610 William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest and William Adams was shipwrecked onto the coast of Japan. Performed in conjunction with the RSC's season A World Elsewhere (director Gregory Dolan is also the RSC's artistic director), Anjin the Shogun and the English Samurai takes place in a politically tempestuous period of Japan's history. Yet writer Mike Poulton's story of the first Englishman to arrive and settle in Japan seems an apt and rather lovely choice for this year's J400 celebrations, marking four hundred years of UK-Japan relations.
After narrowly avoiding crucifixion by the Spanish Jesuits (who fear their missionary work will be undone), Adams fascinates the effectively reigning regent, leyasu Tokugawa, with his seeming expertise in Western technology. Ultimately, Adams plays a key role in a conflict determining the future of Japan's rule, earning him the prestigious status of Samurai and the name "Miura Anjin" (his district & "pilot"). Adams grew to revere the Japanese culture and remained in Japan.
Marking the HoriPro theatre company's return to Sadler's Wells after ten years' absence, Anjin is a spectacular production. Its lavish set uses traditional Japanese-style art, placing the action well in context - and with a horse that might not quite rival those in War Horse, but is pretty striking. Even the entrances and exits convey long-standing ritual and there's a tremendous sense of ceremony throughout.
The show is performed half in English and half in Japanese, using subtitles. While some
of the English performances could have been judged to be gratingly overacted, the language barrier doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the performances in Japanese, so perhaps this was merely clever direction to aid understanding and give the show's style continuity. There were also several deliberately untranslated moments, which effectively added to the shipwrecked men's sense of bewilderment and a slight cultural divide between characters.
Unfortunately, my linguistically talented friend assured me that there were some hysterically funny ad libs which went untranslated. A special mention was well-earned by Sam Marks as Antonio, who gave a stand-out performance overall, but particularly excelled in the opening scene, innocently giving conniving mistranslations.
More could have been made of the script's fabulous opportunities for comedy - while it is a largely serious piece, more comedy could have only heightened the drama. That said, the chaotic battle sequences were particularly effective and greatly aided by Dozan Fujiwara's music, which was atmospheric throughout.
At times, the rapid influx of names was slightly confusing. It is something of an epic (and so it is quite long) and so perhaps might be better enjoyed following a glance through the synopsis. That said, there were some extremely moving moments - notably Masachika Ichimura and Stephen Boxer's scene in Act 2, which they saved from the clumsy use of projections. Furthermore, Ichimura and Yui Fujimaki's final scene was quite beautiful, with deeply mpressive work from both of them.
Despite the odd melodramatic moment, this is, overall, an excellent production, and a chance to see something different.
Anjin runs at Sadler's Wells until February 9.