The Bard Abroad: Pembroke Players take Shakespeare's R&J to Japan

29 September 2007

Whilst most of Cambridge treks the Himalayas, makes coffee at Accenture or just stares at the ceiling, a few theatrical societies spend the summer months on the road, bringing their performances to audiences outside the city, the country and the continent. Cambridge American Stage Tour (CAST) are probably the best known, but this summer there’s a new player, or Players, is on the touring field. The Pembroke Players have attempted the most ambitious stage tour Cambridge has seen yet: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in Japan.

“The idea began as a joke in the pub,” remembers Committee Secretary, Alex Middleton, but given Pembroke’s educational links with Japan and the experiences of many students of the language and culture “it slowly dawned on us that it might actually be plausible.” Armed with helpful funding from Anglo-Japanese foundations, the production began its adventure to the other side of the world.

Touring abroad is the ultimate theatrical dissonance; it’s all about challenges and opportunities. The Pembroke Players have had their share of hurdles, says Middleton: “Logistics of getting everyone and everything across the globe have been incredibly complicated, it was not possible for us to hire transport when there so the whole production, tech and set, has to be transportable by hand.” Venues presented the company with strict guidelines on dress code and conduct; in fact, the “star-crossed lovers” were asked to refrain from the necessary lip-locking. The cast had to adapt their performance style to their constantly changing audiences.

But who wouldn’t compromise for a chance to expose a new, 600 strong audience to some of the greatest speeches in the English language? Completely unfamiliar receptions awaited the cast in schools, universities and arts centres, connected by Japan’s famous bullet train. Director Emily Lewis aimed to introduce Japanese audiences to Shakespeare’s best known play, but also to the rhythms of Medieval rural English culture. Including Morris Dancing to a Ewan Campbell’s compelling, live original score, Lewis seeks a Merrie England “that usually only surfaces at village fêtes and folk festivals, and is a far cry from the metropolitan scene that Japanese tourists are used to.”

Before departing for distant shores, the production premiered at an official event at the Japanese embassy in London (so official in fact, that one of the TCS Theatre editors didn’t make it past the strict security). The solid, well paced performance started off with energy, as the Mummers chorally told the Veronese tale. There were some strong performances, notably the grandiose comic relief of Tom Hensby’s Mercutio and Tom Johnson’s remarkably focused Friar Laurence. Although the protagonist couple (Patrick Gleeson and Pilar Garrard) seemed at times almost bland, they clearly had the audience moved by curtain time. The lack of an actual curtain, or any meaningful set, although necessary logistically, hurt the production. But a wooden sticks conceit made the show visually compelling.

“Romeo and Juliet” is a solid and enthusiastic production, a sure touring success. Now the cast will have the task of impressing a more familiar audience on their home run.

“Romeo and Juliet”: Pembroke New Cellars, 5th – 7th October, 7:30 (matinee Sat, 2:30) £5/£4/£3