Phillip Breen: Battling jet lag in Japan

Blog | 02 Nov 2017

Phillip Breen: Battling jet lag in Japan

In his first Curtain Call blog, acclaimed director Phillip Breen gets lost in translation

The anecdotes are great of course.

I say with insouciance, "Yeah, I'm off to direct A Streetcar Named Desire in Tokyo," as if it is very much part of my lifestyle.

"In English?"

"No. In Japanese".

"You speak Japanese?"

"A little," I imply*, sipping my drink and waiting for a pause.

"How do you know what they're saying?"

I talk about opera directors working in foreign languages and the importance of reading gestures and how English with its torrential vocabulary so often confuses things between two English people. I talk of actually being free of the spoken word (actually) and I talk about reading the bodies of the actors in the space you know. Is their gesture true? Do I believe that that's how a man picks up a glass? Is that gesture true? It's like choreographing a dance. It's completely revolutionised my approach.

And I do feel that. I do.

But. But...

Five days in and I am in the grip of what DH Lawrence might dub the bitch goddess that is jet lag. What's the problem? You just get sleepy at odd hours, right? Sort of. I'd describe it more like your body, heart and mind being occupied by a particularly sadistic terrorist sect. I got here on Thursday. It's now Tuesday, I've slept for a total of four hours and I pace the streets of this neon Hades at 3am in the rain**, louring clouds pulsing with light cling to the top of not particularly tall buildings***, I'm exhausted but desperate not lay eyes on my bed, because when I lay eyes on my bed, and I feel the door of my little apartment click behind me, everything tightens and my heart thumps out of my chest at the prospect of another night of clamping my eye lids closed for dear life, body stiff, praying for repose, being scared of the sunrise.

Can I just be at home...

Please? Please?

"How long are you going for?"

"About two, two and a half months. It depends, really."

More bloody insouciance.

"I might go up north for a week after we open, see the snow in Hokkaido."

I mean I MIGHT go and see the snow in Hokkaido. It's not out of the question...

"That's a long time..."

It echoes. It thuds.

"That's a long time...". At five am the bitch goddess is making time expand and contract in my mind like the conductor of some demented concertina orchestra. "That's a long time...". Eleven weeks feels like a long weekend and the rest of my life all at once. I am shackled to every tick of the clock. I hope that the next time I remember how many days I have been here it will be longer than the mere four days that I actually have been here. "That's a long time..." 

I want the days to race by. The days walk backwards. I want to be anywhere but in this bed, body stiff with my phone locked in my room safe to stop me looking at it because it reminds me that it's 7pm at home and by 8am I won't be able to contact anybody to talk me through this until 4pm my time and my pulse thumps like a Gene Krupa drum solo at the thought.

Tomorrow is day one of rehearsals.

The actors want to know what all actors want to know on day one of rehearsals. Will it be good? Will you be good? Will he be good? Is this going to be fine? Will you take care of me? I will. I'll do my best. I will absolutely try my absolute best because I want you to take care of me too. 

Darting glances about the room, voices used to roaring now soft, nervous laughter in response to gallows humour. This is now real. It's happening. It's like all the first days I have known, but abstracted, heightened and bent. Although we don't share a language, I know that day-one-of-rehearsal look in their eyes, it's the same in any rehearsal room in the world. It's so familiar and so pure. I look into the eye of the actor and he looks into mine.

Will you take care of me?

Neither of us quite register the words of the interpreter as she translates the ostensible dialogue that floats - indifferent - on the surface of the scene a mile above our heads. I feel the first stirrings of peace because this is amazing, this thing that is happening in a Tokyo back street while England sleeps. This thing that we all do that rips us from our homes and makes fools of us all. Remember this. Remember this on opening night. Remember when it was raw like this and we didn't know where we were going or how the f*ck we were going to do it. Remember this before the shock subsides. Remember it in success. Remember it in every honourable failure. Learn these lessons. They're important. They're the only lessons.

I'm in my room. It's nearly dawn. I think about the crew of the Pequod in Moby-Dick. Away for years on end in choppy, freezing seas in pursuit of the whale, the thing, the obsession that will eventually devour them. I think how much Ishmael would've appreciated Skype.

I have Skype.

I'm so lucky.

My eyelids soften.

I forget myself.

I sleep.

And like Ishmael, I'm saved.

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* I speak about five words of Japanese.

** Super-Typhoon Lan as it happens.

*** The sort of place where you imagine a cyborg might be playing with a genetically modified owl.

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