Reginald Rose’s drama Twelve Angry Men is an American theatre classic that has proved popular with audiences in Japan, where trial by jury was reintroduced in Japan in 2009 for the first time since 1943. Before the pandemic hit, I signed up to direct the play at the Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon, Tokyo, with rehearsals due to begin this summer. Towards the end of July, Tokyo’s theatres reopened for socially distanced audiences. But with no easing of travel restrictions, I was asked if I would be willing to direct the play by Zoom instead of in person, opening the show in Tokyo from my home in west London. Faced with an indefinite postponement and intrigued by the prospect of a novel way of directing, I agreed – and kept a diary of rehearsals.
First week: Panic! Loneliness!
At 8am (we compromised over time differences), I watch the read-through from my iPad, glancing frequently at my script – English on one side and Japanese with a phonetic translation on the other. The actors are wearing a mixture of transparent masks and visors, seated around the rehearsal table which has perspex dividers placed on it. There are breaks of 10 minutes every hour for ventilation and sanitisation. I worry about the distancing effect of Zoom – how to establish a feeling of uninhibited relaxation when my presence on screen must be like Big Brother? At one point I lose my place and have no assistant director to nudge for guidance. Panic! Loneliness!
The read-through over, I speak for about half an hour about the play’s historical context and the nature of the jury system in 1950s New York. The actors at first seem nervous to ask questions but we begin to talk about racism in the play. The day finishes at 1pm with everyone relieved that something creative has begun for the first time in many months.
For the rest of the week I continue with table work which involves examining every line of the text – asking questions about character, psychological motivation and historical background. This takes longer than usual since everything is filtered through my brilliant interpreter, Yoko Tokita, who I sense will rapidly turn into an extra limb. Time is spent discussing language differences – finding equivalents for New York slang and adapting to the less frequent use of irony in Japanese.
As we discuss the details of the plot, I point out how we sometimes emulate the play’s theme of how we never really know the true motive behind an action or the reality of an event. I can see why Harold Pinter was attracted to this play.
Second week: The personal is public
We begin with physical rehearsals on the marked-out stage floor. I work through the text, stopping every few lines, giving notes and then repeating. When I give an actor a note, it is usually a personal exchange, as I key into the individual’s way of communicating. But with Zoom, every note is public, with the entire company listening in silence. Formality reigns.
I miss the lack of mutually generated creative energy which can only exist when we are all in the room together. A further challenge is staging the play. I am used to moving into the space and physically demonstrating. Blocking by Zoom, I feel like I’m on Bob Monkhouse’s The Golden Shot – “up a bit, left a bit …”. Nevertheless, the cast are talented and diligent, and things progress well as I get used to the two roving cameras.
Third week: TikTok interruption
We move into the theatre on to a beautiful set designed by Peter McKintosh. The luxury of working on a finished set a week before technical rehearsal is rare, and only made possible by the pandemic. I am having to cope with two of my teenage children in the kitchen next door screaming at me to quieten down the actors – “Shut the fuck up! We’re trying to learn a TikTok!”
Fourth week: Everything goes incredibly loud
Everyone has been tested for Covid-19 as we go into tech week. A massive round of applause when it’s announced everyone is negative. Relief! The show goes on.
Excellent first run-through. Slightly nervous that it runs at two hours, with no interval. I couldn’t always judge language, rhythm and clarity and am reliant on Yoko and the assistant director, Suyama Hirono, for this aspect.
The technical rehearsal begins. It’s hard at first to judge the quality of the lighting since Zoom creates lots of glare which tends to bleach out the image. Watching the first dress rehearsal, I receive a huge shock – everyone has removed their masks for the first time and suddenly everything seems incredibly loud. The actors say they were also thrown as they hear their own voices in a different way.
I am told after the opening night performance that I’ll be joining the actors for a first-night party on a laptop in the dressing rooms. Surreal!
Opening night: We find a way
This is streamed live online. I feel moved watching the audience take their seats, although I don’t feel the usual thrill of fear and expectation. I miss the masochistic agony of sitting in the auditorium, surrounded by critics, praying to an absent God for nothing to go wrong. The show becomes more and more compelling and I can feel the audience gripped. An extended standing ovation brings a tear to my unsentimental eye. We have managed it!
The following morning, along with the feeling of post-production deflation, I sense that something important has been achieved: the inventiveness and support of the Cocoon theatre’s producers, combined with the collective creative will of the company, has delivered vital, live theatre in the most difficult of circumstances.
Theatre has, and will, find a way.
Twelve Angry Men is at Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon, Tokyo, until 4 October.