Why Shakespeare and samurai are a magical mix

Staging a Japanese play was a voyage of discovery for the RSC's Gregory Doran

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The Independent Culture

"I' the East my pleasure lies" Shakespeare says, and this winter it has been my great pleasure to direct two very different plays, both set on the other side of the world, in the Far East: The Orphan of Zhao a Chinese play, dating back to the Ming Dynasty and before, which opened our winter season in the Swan Theatre in Stratford, in a new adaptation by James Fenton, and now a huge samurai epic set in Feudal Japan.

They called him "Anjin", the blue-eyed samurai, and he became the right-hand man of the most famous Shogun in Japanese history. I knew very little about William Adams, an Englishman wrecked off the coast of Japan during Shakespeare's lifetime, but it sounded like a great subject for a play. I had dim recollections of a TV mini-series in my teenage years, starring Richard Chamberlain, based on the James Clavell novel Shogun, but did not realise that the truth would me so much more interesting than the fiction.

We were on tour with the RSC in Tokyo when I first heard the story. Theatre impresario, Thelma Holt, who had brokered the tour with the Japanese media company HoriPro introduced me to its founding director Takeo Hori. I asked him what he knew of the story. It turns out that Adams was big in Japan. He arrived at a crucial period in Japanese history, at a time of huge civil strife, just months before the battle of Sekigahara (the equivalent of our Battle of Bosworth Field). The result was that the winning side, led by Tokugawa Ieyasu, ultimately instituted a reign of peace and unified Japan for the first time.

Hori's story, full of shipwrecks, battles and fierce women leaders (the opposition was led by the terrifying Lady Yododono), of children caught in the crossfire, of scheming Jesuits and boorish English louts behaving badly abroad, captivated me.

I had for some time been working on a potential season for the Swan Theatre in Stratford about what was going on in the rest of the world in Shakespeare's time, and if we could turn Adams's story into a play, and apply to it a sense of pace and structure, learned from Shakespeare's History plays, then it would be a great addition to such a season. HoriPro jumped at the idea, and we commissioned a British and a Japanese writer (Mike Poulton and Shoichiro Kawai) to write a piece which would involve a large cast of actors from both countries.

And now, several years later, a revival of our play has sailed into harbour at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, after a run in Tokyo, and Yokohama. It feels only right that this huge intercultural project should finally have arrived home in the UK.

Anjin: the Shogun and the English Samurai stars the great Japanese actor Masachika Ichimura as the Shogun, and RSC actor Stephen Boxer as Adams with seven British actors, and 17 Japanese. The production involves an enormous wardrobe of extravagant samurai armour, and exquisite kimonos, a beautiful set, based on the Namban Byobu, on 17th-century Japanese folding screens, and even a rearing war horse.

It has been not only a pleasure, but real voyage of discovery for me. Hearing and retelling the stories of other lands can only increase and deepen our understanding of those very different cultures. Japanese audiences gave Anjin a very warm reception. It remains to be seen what British audiences will make of this little known episode in our shared history.

Gregory Doran is the artistic director of the RSC

'Anjin: the Shogun and the English Samurai', Sadler's Wells , London EC1 (0844 412 4300) 31 January to 9 February; 'The Orphan of Zhao', Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (0844 800 1110) to 28 March