February 5, 2013 5:14 pm

Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai, Sadler’s Wells, London

Directed by Gregory Doran, this UK-Japanese co-production is the story of an English sailor’s adventures in 17th-century Japan
Masachika Ichimura and Katsuya Kobayashi in ‘Anjin’

Masachika Ichimura and Katsuya Kobayashi in ‘Anjin’

This play started to make much more emotional and intellectual sense once I began, some time after the interval, to think of it as “these plays”. It is true that there was a deep historical relationship between William Adams, an English sailor (more or less) shipwrecked in Japan in 1600, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who shortly thereafter founded the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan for the next two and a half centuries. Ieyasu came to trust Adams as an adviser on relations with European powers, bestowing on him lands and revenues, the title hatamoto and the cognomen Anjin, “pilot”. However (and notwithstanding James Clavell’s fictional treatment in his novel Shogun), the two stories seem to resist being brought together over three sprawling hours with sufficient tonal coherence.

For instance, the scene here in which Adams remonstrates with unruly visitors from the English East India Company and that in which Ieyasu muses on his personal integrity while explaining to the last remaining son of a rival dynasty why he must be executed remain, intractably and in every respect, in radically different dramatic worlds. Royal Shakespeare Company stalwart Stephen Boxer and Masachika Ichimura work well in their scenes together as Adams and Ieyasu, but each feels more at ease with, so to speak, his own material.

How much of this disjunction may be due to a division of authorial duties between Mike Poulton and Shoichiro Kawai, I do not know; Poulton has an honourable record both as a translator/adapter of foreign works and as an original writer. The entire project was conceived as a hybrid. Gregory Doran’s production premiered in Tokyo in 2009 under the aegis of HoriPro, the company that often collaborates with producer Thelma Holt to bring Yukio Ninagawa to Britain; this final leg of the production’s existence is another HoriPro/Holt co-production.

Although not an RSC enterprise, the conceptual vision was Shakespearean: to portray a crucial episode in history (one of the most crucial in Japan’s national biography) through both an upper tier of political conflict and also on a human level of contrasting personal impulses. Unlike Shakespeare, the result here is, in the words of a Lou Reed song, “like bacon and ice cream”: two disparate ingredients, each wonderfully appealing but which (pace Heston Blumenthal) simply do not go together.


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