The elastic and altogether eclectic, FellSwoop Theatre can’t be accused of having a narrow scope. Their past Fringe shows include an adapted version of a hard-hitting Patrick deWitt novel, and a lauded, visually deft rendition of animated film Belleville-Rendez Vous. Heading back up to the festival, with an adaptation of a powerful Japanese play written in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, Bertrand Lesca tells me that they “like going places that feel dangerous.”
What was it that interested you about Toshiki Okada’s work?
This is the second time that we are working on a text by Toshiki Okada. Okada is a very famous playwright and director in Japan. His work had never been performed in the UK and it felt important to do so. More than any other contemporary playwright that I know, Okada’s plays give a genuine expression of the world and society we live in today.
I discovered Current Location whilst I was working at a Festival in Tokyo. Seeing this play about Fukushima, I witnessed the reaction of the entire Japanese audience change during the course of the play. Okada’s ideas resonated with them. They were deeply affected by the images he used in his play in a way that I could only understand having been in Japan and having experienced the same fears about the effects of the radioactive spill.
Okada and I then started discussing the idea of using this play as a starting point for a discussion about climate change. Since the play is an allegory, the same Japanese village serves as a symbol for what we ourselves experience in the UK.
What were the main stylistic and linguistic challenges you faced in translating and adapting a Japanese play?
Five Days in March, our first Okada show, and Okada’s signature piece uses very colloquial language. At the time, we kept Okada’s text and Aya Ogawa’s translation, which was quite challenging for the actors who had to remember all the ‘You Knows”, “Buts” and “Likes”. The language kept going round in circles. People kept getting lost in the meandering of the language. It was an extremely disconcerting text but a fascinating experiment nevertheless!
Current Location couldn’t be more different stylistically. It is set in a fictional village far removed from any form of realism.
The language the characters speak in this play feels very contrived: they can no longer express their emotions and feelings correctly. It’s as if we’ve gone a step too far and people have stopped behaving normally or feeling empathetic towards the situation.
It’s as if only a miracle or a technological advance will undo the mistakes of history
Current Location involves the use of music. What form does this take?
The play is set in a choir rehearsal room. This idea was not in the original play. We wanted to create a space in which these conversations would happen.
The choir is a community within the community, an ensemble of people having to work with different voices. On the one hand it has a metaphorical significance (there’s a very good recent study of Japanese culture called ‘The Paradox of Harmony’), on the other it’s quite literal, a reason for these characters to spend time together and a way for them to distract themselves from their fears.
Ben and I also had this idea of making the actresses sing madrigals. If you listen to the lyrics of Monteverdi’s madrigals, they are connected with the idea that man and nature coexist together. In a lot of these madrigals, poets find an expression of their own emotions in nature. I guess this is something we have lost a bit along the way. It’s as if that dialogue had stopped when for so long people would read something in those changes.
Those changes that we see all around us with drought and extreme temperatures tells us something is wrong but we have stopped listening to these signs or we are less sensitive to it.
What will the sci-fi element of the play entail?
The sci-fi element was perhaps a little more present in the original play. At the end of the play, the villagers find a ship at the bottom of the lake which can take them away from the village and from all the mass destruction occurring in that place.
When you are in Japan, this final statement is quite a tragic one. It’s as if only a miracle can save the country from this radioactive spill and the damages it causes to nature. Either a miracle or some kind of technological advance which will undo the mistakes of history.
Talk us through the characters in Current Location: is there a protagonist and adversary to look out for or is it more complicated than that?
The play begins with a very tight community of people all united around the same idea that they shouldn’t speak about the ‘blue cloud’. All the characters feel very scared about it. They all know that it is a bad omen and yet don’t quite know how to interact with it.
When Hana comes in, she really threatens the status quo. The whole community is shaken to its core by this foreign presence. She wants to make them speak and engage with the situation; decide whether to stay or to leave the village.
Do you feel frustrated at the lack of engagement with Climate Change on both a political and local level? Is this play an attempt to motivate change?
We don’t want to give lessons to anyone. Theatre shouldn’t do that. It should however help us to think about it and offer us some perspective on this complicated matter.
In Current Location, there are two sides opposing each other. Some villagers decide to deny this change, and there are other villagers who want to leave this place.
For us the answer is elsewhere: we are unable to escape climate change. Leaving or staying doesn’t matter. It is happening and so we now need to take some very important decisions on how are going to tackle it properly.
How do you make it through 2 weeks of doing the same show?
Doing the same show isn’t a problem. It is quite satisfying as every performance brings in something new. We keep discovering this piece, adding new elements or refining it slightly.
The Fringe is first and foremost a wonderful place for exchange and experimentation. Companies do need to go and see plays they are interested in. Seeing exciting work at the Fringe has always fuelled our inspiration for the year ahead and the next show we will be working on.
Participating at the Fringe this year with such a different show from the ones we have done before proves to be very exciting. It means that we can show a different side of our work that a lot of people won’t have seen before.
As a company, what is the most interesting or enjoyable space you’ve performed in so far?
A performance of Current Location is profoundly affected by the space which we perform it in, which means we have to select the site with care.
Thanks to this show we have performed in fantastic spaces that have evoked the feel of a choir rehearsal room. We have performed in community centres in Bristol and Brighton that were old churches, where the old stained glass windows created fantastic lighting inside the performance space.
In Madrid, we also performed the show in an old abattoir on the outskirts of the city. The show was performed under huge windows at the break of day. The space was getting darker and darker as the play progressed. It was fantastic!
From where and from who you draw your theatrical inspirations from?
We let the actors find their own models, and this is very much part of the creative process.
Recently, we have become increasingly interested in the work of Romeo Castellucci, who creates a really unique form of visual and cathartic theatre. His exploration of the tragic form is what inspired us to create our new piece ‘Ghost Opera’.
Visually we share many cinematic references. We really love the work of David Lynch. We like surrealists, especially Magritte and Goya’s Black paintings.
Your work has been solely adaptation-based to date: is this a choice of preference or to prepare yourself for the leap into your own writing?
Until now, we found it easier to work from an existing text. Our new piece which will be touring in Autumn is our first attempt to devise and write a piece from scratch. It’s been a bit of a mad ride but we are excited to be sharing this work soon. It’s an experiment. A performance at the crossroad between a play, an opera and a séance…
Current Location will be performed at Summerhall from August 17th-19th and 21st-30th.