Review by Daz Gale
Last year’s sensational staging of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro showed there was a huge appetite for anime classics to be adapted for the stage. With that show set to return later this year and a hotly anticipated stage version of the classic Spirited Away to play in London next year, it has managed to combine two different forms of art with anime and theatre fans alike both able to celebrate their love for a good story, expertly told. Another anime film is now hoping to enjoy the same success with Makota Shinkai’s The Garden of Words making its world premiere in London at one of this websites personal favourite theatres, Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. Would it be able to enjoy similar success or would it struggle to connect?
Makoto Shinkai’s anime and novel The Garden of Words was first seen in 2013 and now enjoys its world premiere stage adaptation in the UK before a planned opening in Japan. A story of what it is to feel alone in the biggest metropolis in the world, it sees a teenager and an older woman continue to meet in a rainy Japanese garden and form an unlikely bond. As complications around their relationship start to form, the show tells multiple stories over a group of characters and their own struggles with connection.
Adapted for the stage by Whole Hog Theatre, The Garden of Words is a multisensory experience with sights and sounds playing an important role alongside the story itself. Though it uses a relatively small stage in the 200-capacity Park Theatre, it impresses with its production value for the most part with Kelly Lou’s set design providing a visually stimulating backdrop. This brings a fantastic use of projection design by Kenichi Arakaki to life in a glorious way with great lighting from Rajiv Pattani and sound design from Nicola T. Chang creating a production that feels atmospheric and almost immersive in quality, thanks to its intimate nature.
Alexandra Rutter’s direction is ambitious as it brings this story to life in a new medium and shows some flashes of genius, but not every choice lands to the same effect with staging feeling busy at times and seeing a cast endlessly wandering around. To an extent, this is unavoidable due to the extremely intimate nature of the space but the busyness actually took away from moments which should have been smaller and themselves more intimate. Rutter’s movement was on the whole more satisfying, while puppetry from Mikayla Teodoro provided one of the more memorable aspects of the show, even if it didn’t always fit in seamlessly and did feel at odds with the story in certain times.
While The Garden of Words boasts a cast of wonderful young actors, some of whom are making their professional debuts in this production, the performances were a bit uneven. Out of respect for these performers, I’m not going to mention anyone by name in this nature. There were a couple of standouts in the cast who managed to channel their own storylines to create as much depth as possible, but other characters felt underdeveloped and unnatural and their performances reflected this. To be quite honest, however, I don’t think this is the fault of the performers at all. They are doing the best they can with the writing they have – and that is where the real problem lies.
Having never seen the anime before, I can’t compare this adaptation of The Garden of Words to the original. That said, I am aware that the anime was 45 minutes long and this stage adaptation adds another hour on to the story – and it shows. While there is a beautiful and intimate story buried in here, it tries to add too much on assumedly to fill time, and this creates a whole lot of inconsistency. Multiple plotlines involving characters can feel disjointed, underwritten and never fully explored. This felt extremely frustrating as their stories just played out with some scenes feeling irrelevant to the overall story and as if it is just there to fill time. Similarly, these storylines never get a satisfying conclusion and didn’t tie together to create one cohesive piece of theatre.
The other issue with this adaptation is it makes the main storyline between Takao Akizuki and Yukari Yukino feel incredibly creepy, bringing to mind a certain problematic storyline in Aspects of Love. While the aim of this show is to challenge stereotypes and showcase a platonic intergenerational friendship, it fails to convey this, making the relationship between a 15-year-old boy and a teacher feel uncomfortable. Intent is important but the true idea behind this relationship got lost in this adaptation which means, instead of being heartfelt and heartwarming, it felt perplexing and predatory. There were a few great moments in the dialogue, particularly when it came to Rika’s career in the theatre with the laugh-out-loud line “Theatre isn’t about enjoying it… or having fun” – a line which sadly proved foreboding for my own experience of this show.
I had high hopes for this production of The Garden of Words, having been won over by the description of the show and knowing other shows recently I have loved. While there are some fantastic elements to this production, namely the visual aspects, the main story is a bit of a misfire. At its heart, The Garden of Words is about connection, and that is the biggest problem with this show – it failed to connect. I wanted to lose myself in the beautiful world that had been created, fall in love with these characters and buy into their stories. Instead, I felt myself wanting more and feeling unsatisfied by the unfinished nature of it all.
It is, as always, important to remember that theatre is subjective. Looking around the audience at the end of the show, I saw varied reactions with many people clearly loving the production. I would still encourage anybody interested to see it for themselves and make up their own minds. For me personally, however, The Garden of Words needs a bit more development if it truly wants to be able to connect.
The Garden of Words plays at Park Theatre until 9th September. Tickets from parktheatre.co.uk
Photos by Piers Foley