Japan, My Love

“...We were rehearsing the scene of Hamlet’s departure to England when the earthquake struck.  It was at 14.40 Tokyo time...”
For the past 25 years Valery Belyakovich has been a guest of honor on the Japanese islands, where his productions are a big success. Among them are “Molière”, “The Lower Depths”, “Hamlet”, “Romeo and Juliet”, where the Montagues and the Capulets spoke different languages, while Russian and Japanese actors made themselves at home in common mise-en-scènes.    His new production of “Hamlet” was supposed to open in Tokyo on March 11, and the opening night took place despite the powerful earthquake. 

I know Japan inside out; I know my way around the subway better than most Japanese, I could take people on guided tours.  I already have my own personal suite at the hotel – a three-bedroom one, otherwise I cannot fit.  They are smaller than us in everything.  I have to shop for clothes at a special XXXXXL store; I feel like a “tsar-father”.

Our love affair with Japan began with “Hamlet” with Viktor Avilov in the title role.  We took that Theatre in the South-West’s production all over the country.  The Japanese still consider that production an unattainable wonder.  

Since then we have been collaborating with Tokyo’s Toen Theatre, which has always been Russia-oriented. Anatoly Efros used to work at the Toen before I got there.  He staged the production of “A Month in the Country”, and, subsequently, his lead actor Ikedo-san played Molière and Satin in my productions.  Anatoly Vasilievich is still remembered and loved there; theatre guests are shown the café across the street that he used to frequent. 

The Toen does not have a theatre director, so I feel very much at ease; I can make noise and argue as much as I need to.  My curator Sato-san has a great feel for my style.  Even though I’ve been collaborating with that theatre for quite a while, every time half of the cast I get are new actors. I wrote a story about the difficulties of such perpetual double translation – it’s just like in the movie “Lost in Translation”. 

Over my last 25 years there, I staged bilingual productions of “Romeo and Juliet”, “The Lower Depths” and many other plays.  The role of Hamlet in my last premiere was performed by the same artist who played the role of Vaska-Pepel in “The Lower Depths”.  I played Claudius myself (the Japanese asked me to: “Belya-san is such a great artist!  He demonstrates how to play so well, let him play something already!”), even though it isn’t easy playing this role when you’re 60 – people don’t strive for power so much at my age.   And we had one other mixed family – Russian Ophelia and Laertes with a Japanese father Polonius. 

The compatibility of representatives of Japanese and European theatres is possible among the most gifted people.  Japanese artists can instantly switch from one emotion to another. If they need to cry, they will cry right then and there, like light bulbs going off.  We will take a long time to get fired up, but they have their emotions right at their disposal.   

Japanese artists are very disciplined.  They memorize the text in its entirety.  They come to rehearsals an hour early – they do stretches, breathing exercises, warm ups, vocal training.  They are very serious about their profession, despite a rather modest pay.  Everyone has the complete text of the play with them, not just their own lines. Everyone writes down comments as the rehearsals progress.  In our very own Moscow Art Academic Theatre you can’t get people together – everyone runs off to smoking rooms and snack bars.  Here, though, they all sit on the floor and write non-stop.  Everyone has a pencil and an eraser (I keep changing everything all the time, and they are patiently erasing and rewriting).  They work like a clock, with no interruptions.  But, by preserving the picture, they live inside it, improvising and responding to your improvisations. And they get inspired no less frequently than actors from the Russian psychological school. 

Of course, there you need to stage something that is widely known.  The number one European play in Japan is “The Lower Depths” – its subject matter is very dear to the Japanese.  To them, Satin’s soliloquy sounds like Hamlet’s.   And every city has a bar with the Russian name “Na Dne” (“The Lower Depths”).  They are overall extremely interested in the Russians. All it takes is for you to start singing “Katyusha” or “Ogonek” (“The Burning Flame”) (“A girl saw a soldier off to the front…”), and they will immediately join in with their own lyrics.    

Second place in terms of importance I would give to “The Women’s Rebellion” (“Lysistrata”), then “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet”. 

Our new “Hamlet” was supposed to open on March 11.  At 14.40 we were rehearsing the scene of Hamlet’s departure to England.  I asked that the sailors themselves sway back and forth as well as rock the columns that symbolized the sails.  I was starting to feel a bit on edge – I mean, come on, how many times do I have to explain this! – and I was yelling: “Come on! Harder, that’s it, make the music louder!”   And suddenly I saw that the floodlights were bumping against one another.  I yelled, “What are you doing, stop, not that hard!”  They all fell down, and the next moment I fell too, hitting my head against a chair, because the ground literally slid from under my feet.  This was an unforgettable moment – dress circle boxes trembled and shook before my eyes, the chandelier swung back and forth, chairs rolled around, and this rumbling noise was coming from all directions.  We ran out into the foyer and through a panoramic window we saw a bullet train that had stopped on the tracks and seemed to be hopping up and down, tearing its wheels off the rails.   And behind it – skyscrapers, rocking back and forth like giant trees.  “Do not run outside!” Sato-san roared wildly (apparently, an earthquake changes one’s tone of voice).  The Japanese are all instructed to stay indoors during an earthquake, because it’s more dangerous to be outside.  Houses in Tokyo withstood that impact. 

Sasha Pushkin, our painter, was downtown at the time.  There the horrible creaking, the grinding of metal – all of it was so bad that the ears couldn’t take it.    It lasted for about five minutes that seemed like an eternity.  Our guys clung to each other, white as sheets; some saying “Our Father”, others clutching their backpacks with documents and money.  Everybody got motion sickness; we wobbled back into the theatre hall.  And an hour later there was another tremor.  Then we continued our rehearsal.  Sailors started running, bumped into each other, one was unconscious, another was bleeding from his nose.  That’s the condition we were in for our opening night. 

Nobody canceled the opening night, though.  The subway stopped running, there were very few people in the audience.  Apart from our guests there were also Komaki Kurihara (she has her own theatre company) and one extremely well-known person, whom everybody calls the “theatre emperor”.  He is the head of one of the largest theatre centers in Fukuoka, the capital of the island of Kyushu.  The fate of theatres and shows depends on such emperors.  He purchases various productions and then takes them all over Japan on a months-long tour (that is the unique system of theatre business that he adopted).  Our premiere showings of eight productions are, in essence, a trade fair.  Producers come to those, and if they like a production they buy it and put it in every island’s repertoire.   Our “Hamlet” was purchased by Kyushu and Honshu.  We were virtually performing our premiere for two audience members, but those two were the most important ones. 

On the third day we already had a full house, and on March 14 we were performing during a new earthquake.  I will remember the scene with Laertes for the rest of my life.  As soon as I said the line, “Laertes, I must commune with your grief, or you deny me right”, there was about a 4-point tremor.  I saw the chairs in the audience move, but I kept saying my lines.  Nobody interrupted the performance. The people in the audience were being shaken about – they kept watching, we were being jolted around – we kept on playing.  We experienced another strong tremor during dinner at a restaurant, when glasses were flying out of our hands, and the third one happened during the night of packing before our departure: I just finished packing up my things, had an hour left before leaving, so I lied down – and everything started shaking again!  But I thought to myself, “It’s just like during a train ride,” and went on sleeping.  You get used to everything.  We were leaving without panic; the big airplane had room for everyone. 

We were worried about our friends that were staying behind – there’s nowhere to go on these islands, you know.  Nowhere to hide from radiation…  I have tears in my eyes when I watch the Emperor on television as he comes to his people and kneels before them (for they were warned about the danger associated with the old nuclear plant).  That was a very human response. 

I am sure that they will handle this, though.  And in January of 2012 we are starting our next project.


Valery Belyakovich

Recorded by Natalia Kolesova



Valery Romanovich Belyakovich (b. 1950) — a Russian actor, founder, artistic director and theatre director of Moscow’s Theatre in the South-West, theatre instructor.  People’s Artist of Russia (2003). Staged productions at the Gorky Moscow Art Academic Theatre, the Gogol Theatre, the Moscow Youth Theatre, the Novaya Opera Theatre, as well as in the U.S. and Japan.  




Current Issue


Search the site