Meditative tragedy

Print edition : February 24, 2006

Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

YOUNG Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi made meditative tragedy when he combined Othello with the ancient traditions of Mugen-Noh theatre. The text was no straight translation. An older form of Japanese - underscored by folk instruments - gave the play an elegiac rhythm. The use of masks ensured local flavour and universal relevance.

Cyprus was the setting. A waki (common man, here a Venetian pilgrim) is saddened to see the island under Turkish rule, with Venetian women enslaved by the conquerors. He meets the wandering shites (ghosts) of Desdemona and Othello. Heaven is shut to them. But narrating their experience to the waki cuts away their earthly shackles, sorrow and guilt. The detailing of their catastrophe becomes a community ritual leading to catharsis, repose and liberation.

Miyagi knew that lingering pace, lyrical beauty and tranquil enactment would highlight horror and pathos. Unforgettable visuals included Desdemona's slender neck being throttled by one of her hands wearing a male warrior's glove, while the other - bare, tender and feminine, writhes in the attempt to escape. Miyagi was not happy with the `glove' device though. "Nowadays the audience doesn't know enough about the story. So we have to make it clear that two persons are involved, the strangler and the victim," he said with a smile.

After the narrative rite, Desdemona's whole frame quivers with emotion. She wafts out slowly, but returns before the final exit, almost as if to reassure herself, and the audience, that she is indeed free. A single moment's inattentiveness would have cost us those nuances. Miyagi's play demands total immersion. What happens is not action, but recollection - aching, difficult and yearning.

Othello is released when he admits his fatal mistake to the traveller who represents the audience - and the community. In ancient Greece, theatre brought catharsis, the tribe's return to well-being. "Theatre can be just as rewarding for city dwellers today," said Miyagi. When the protagonist shares his loneliness with the audience "the soul in isolation turns into a guardian of the community". The director knows that this is not as easy today as it was in the ancient world. The sense of a collective community has dwindled. But just as Othello and Desdemona were saved when they discovered that they were not alone, the urban audience too can find salavation from grief and loneliness when the performance makes them one with others.

You are still left with a question. Desdemona perceived only the anger of Othello while she was strangled. She knew his grief only when she retold her tale to the wayfarer. Does this mean that art can make the viewer transcend himself to experience the truth below the surface? Will this save us?

"The story in Cyprus has no direct relation to Japan or India. But the tragedy in Cyprus suggests that we are facing problems in the present. Will this save us? We can only ask and look for the answer."

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