While many theatres up and down the country are in the middle of preparation for traditional pantomime, Southwark Playhouse are rehearsing their alternative take on a family Christmas show. Usagi Yojimbo is the first stage adaptation for Stan Sakai’s classic comic book series. In our first of two peeks inside the rehearsal roomGlen Pearce speaks to director Amy Draper about the challenges of bringing a 17th Century Japanese rabbit Samurai to the stage.
This may be an unfamiliar story to many – how would you summarise it?
It’s an adaptation of a comic book called Usagi Yojimboby Stan Sakai, it’s been around for 30 years and is really well known in the comic book world and the character is loved the world over. We’ve adapted book number 2 of 29 into an adaptation for the stage. It tells the story of a Samurai rabbit in 17th Century Japan and it’s a Japan populated by animals so all the character are anthropomorphic; a lion, various dog species, a tiger, a raccoon, a mole, different bandit species. So it’s a very energetic and lively production.
It sounds an unusual project to direct, what have been the challenges in bringing Usagi to the stage?
Oh multiple! Firstly, it’s a character that not everybody knows so we wanted it to be as accessible as possible. We’ve got this rabbit character who goes from boy to man during the show and that’s a linear narrative so that’s quite simple but then we also add in to that things like fight choreography, live taiko drumming and lots of projections that take over the entire set. It’s a very big creative team to create the world of the comic book. That world is quite punchy and things happen very quickly. It’s a world where you can zoom in on things very quickly and then pan right out and we needed to create a set that did the same thing. It’s quite a blank set but think of it like a blank canvas and on top of that we use a lot of projections and exciting little tricks during the show.
You mention the characters are animal based, have you had to do a lot of work with the cast to understand the animal aspect?
We’ve done quite a bit of animal physicality work and we’ve asked ourselves the question why Stan Sakai chose various animals – what is it about that animal quality that refers back to that character. We’ve also talked about whether they are humans with animal qualities or animals with human qualities. We decided they were a mixture of the two so what you’re going to see on stage is humans, standing on two legs, but with physicality and characteristics of their various animals. The costume is quite traditional 17th century Japanese dress but then it morphs into these amazing wigs and headdresses that takes the human into the animal.
This sounds a different kind of Christmas show to the traditional pantomime.
It’s definitely not your tradition festive fare! That said it has got a great story and quite a bit of audience engagement and interaction. Southwark Playhouse are really known for doing quite risk taking, innovative Christmas shows and this is no doubt why they’ve chosen to do this production. It’s not a pantomime but its hopefully going to be very appealing to families and people of all ages because it’s really fun. There’s lots of music, a bit of dancing, lots of signing and a lot of fighting and these great animal characters that I hope people will love, regardless if they’ve read the comic or not. We wanted to make it as accessible as possible because, although it is set in 17th century Japan, it’s basically a coming of age story of a boy becoming a man and navigating those waters. It just happens that the waters for this character are training to be a Samurai warrior!
Is it important and conversely difficult to make a show that is accessible for a range of age groups?
I hope it will be accessible to all ages but you’re right, it’s a very big challenge for this show. We wanted it to appeal to not only those who know the comic but also those who don’t, to eight year olds who have never been to the theatre before, as well as their families. It’s been quite a challenge but I think what we’ve come up with is something that is very true to the original stories and the style and the heart of the original story by Stan but our adaptor and writer Stewart Melton has done a great job of translating it from page to stage.
Watch out for the second part of our look behind the scenes when we talk to Jonathan Raggett who plays Usagi.
Usagi Yojimbo runs at Southwark Playhouse from November 28 to 4 January.
For more information visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk