Following the re-opening of Japan to the West in the mid 1800’s, the Japanese rapidly assimilated Western Culture, including Shakespeare. The first recorded Shakespearian production in Japan, in Japanese, by Japanese theatre professionals, was on May 16 1885. This performance was a Kabuki adaptation of Merchant of Venice written by Katsu Genzo which was performed in Osaka and played to packed audiences until the end of June that year.
In the Bram Stoker collection in the vaults of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is an amazing programme for a Japanese production of King Lear in 1903. This programme was posted to Bram Stoker. R.F. Walsh who, after seeing the performance on 8th August, was inspired to send the programme to Stoker along with his notes on the performance.
“King Rear” was not – as the title may suggest – a ‘blue’ version of King Lear. Instead it was a shimpa adaptation of King Lear, written 1902 by Takayasu Gekko. Takayasu Gekko used the title of Yami to HikariI, or Darkness and Light as his title which he took from Edwards Dowden’s “Shakespeare”. It was first performed in Kobe and Kyoto in 1902, and was revived a year later in Osaka, Yokohama and Tokyo. It was at a performance in Yokohama that our programme was bought.
A lot of what we know today about past performances comes from personal correspondence and diaries of those who saw them; this letter is a great example. Helpfully, Walsh also includes an advert for the performance cut from a newspaper which gives us even more information such as the time of the performance and the cost of a ticket. In his letter, R.F. Walsh tells Stoker of how he joined the actors in the green room for beer and discussed the performance with them – even if their English was not too good. His accompanying notes tell us that the stage was circular and worked on a pivot, all the actors were in Japanese clothing, and at one point there was even a rickshaw on stage! Walsh makes an interesting observation on the challenge of translating Shakespeare into different languages and cultures, describing how occasionally “English words baring no Japanese equivalent come in with queer effect”. He describes the audience as being very attentive, but comments that “Lear, the fool and Regan: all poor in dramatic [skills. Although] Lear very good at times”.
Walsh goes on to tell Stoker about his travels, sadly mentioning how he has recently lost his wife, and signs off with “The world is small and we may meet again, until then good luck to you”. I find myself wondering if Walsh and Stoker ever did meet again, or if they corresponded further. But I bet that Walsh could never have anticipated that his letter and programme would end up in the vaults at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust!