Rena Matsui always knew she wanted to enter the acting world, and launching her career by performing in idol-pop groups was all part of her plan.
She started out as a member of the Nagoya-based SKE48 in 2008 before joining Nogizaka46 in Tokyo, becoming one of the top stars of Japan’s many all-female singing and dancing troupes. In 2015, she left both groups to dedicate herself to acting.
“I was determined to be an actor, so I decided to be an idol in order to get that chance,” she says in a recent video call.
Growing up in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, Matsui developed an early interest in stage performances through her mother’s love of the Takarazuka Revue, a long-running all-female musical theater company.
“Then, when I watched a DVD of [playwright and director] Koki Mitani’s musical Okepi!, which shows the goings-on and gossip between musicians in an orchestra pit, I was amazed by how great it was to explore the entertainment world by focusing on people who aren’t always in the spotlight,” she says.
“I realized that theater has room for unconventional ideas, and I wanted to be an actor who uses their own rich imagination to express intangible things on stage.”
Now Matsui, 30, is taking her acting career to new heights by tackling her first Shakespeare play, an all-female version of the Roman tragedy Julius Caesar.
In this production — running through Oct. 31 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, ahead of a nationwide tour till Nov. 28 — Matsui plays the pivotal role of Mark Antony, a general and follower of Julius Caesar (Sylvia Grab), the charismatic leader of the Roman republic.
Rather than staging the play’s battle scenes, however, director Shintaro Mori has condensed the original text to focus on the tense verbal disputes that arose among Rome’s ruling classes before and after the assassination of Caesar on March 15, 44 B.C.
The play opens days before the deadly deed, with two of Caesar’s erstwhile supporters, senators Cassius (Kio Matsumoto) and Marcus Brutus (Yo Yoshida), agonizing over their leader’s abuses of power. To preserve the republic, the pair hatch a plot to kill Caesar, which soon gains wide support.
After completing their mission — with numerous assailants stabbing Caesar 23 times — Cassius and Brutus stay in Rome to defend their actions. However, when Antony addresses the public, calling for compromise and the conspirators to be spared punishment, his speech subtly turns the crowd against Cassius and Brutus. While his eloquent oration — which famously begins with the lines, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” — heads off an uprising against Rome’s aristocrats, it also effectively nixes the rebels’ calls for reform.
“This is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays because I saw a great version by the Kaki Kuu Kyaku theater company in 2013. That, too, was performed by a cast of women and they exposed the Roman power games in a high-tension, high-speed production…[their version] was enjoyable and easily intelligible, too,” Matsui says.
“Another reason I love this play is that it follows several ambitious characters, whereas many classic plays focus on one protagonist. I think it’s exciting, as the story changes quickly in a way that is very contemporary.”
Meanwhile, she says the all-female cast didn’t feel strange about playing the roles of male aristocrats.
“We don’t speak in low voices to pretend to be men, and we don’t wear trousers, but simple dresses. So we look (and sound) like women — but speak as male characters — and it seems very natural to me. It’s my first experience with this kind of casting, and I actually feel as though I’m acting like a human being, not particularly like a man,” Matsui explains.
She adds that she enjoys hearing how the characters change their voices depending on who they’re speaking to, revealing the power dynamics between the four leads. She was especially amused by how Cassius implemented different voices for various purposes when talking to Brutus. “I almost laughed when I first heard that,” Matsui says.
While the actress says this production is a “genderless drama,” she recognizes the ways in which the all-female cast affects the staging. She points out, for example, that the mood of the masses — played by a female chorus — “changes in harmony” as a result of “womanly conformity” rather than “manly dominance.”
As for her own role, Matsui says it was difficult to play Antony, who cleverly sways the crowd to ostracize Brutus and Cassius in a bid to take over Rome himself.
Matsui observes that many characters in the play say what they believe and act accordingly. When Brutus kills Caesar, for instance, it’s because he wants to protect Rome and he fears that Caesar is becoming a tyrant — even though he truly loves and respects him. Afterward, he does not flee the scene. “So Brutus had an unshakable belief that he lived by,” Matsui says.
Antony’s true intentions, however, are not as clear. Matsui says she wonders whether Antony was really distressed about Caesar’s death, or if his display of sadness was actually a performance for the Roman citizens.
“It’s very difficult to understand Antony’s mental state, and my initial interpretations kept changing. Then the director advised me not to overanalyze it, and just to say the lines again and again. He said that if I repeated the lines every day, I would be able to ride the waves of the role, like mastering surfing. Now I’ve reached that moment and I’m having fun being Antony.”
Keeping Mori’s advice in mind, Matsui says she connects with the Roman general’s feelings through her movements on stage as well.
“If I had made a concrete acting plan for Antony’s speech in advance, the scene would have become superficial and rigid. So when I stand at the rostrum, in my mind I’m just speaking to each member of the public listening to me. That way, I sense the energy of the masses gradually building until they finally connect to Antony’s words, enabling them to stand firm against the conspirators. However, it’s technically very difficult because I can’t make eye contact with every individual. So working out how to persuasively communicate with each listener on stage and each audience member — that’s the key thing.”
With her Shakespeare baptism under her belt, Matsui says she wants to visit the Bard’s homeland as soon as it’s safe to travel abroad.
“I had planned to visit a friend who is studying [in England], but COVID-19 stopped me from going,” she says. “Then the other day she sent me a photo of a statue of Caesar in Bath, so I want to go there and see it for myself.”
Julius Caesar runs Oct. 10 through 31 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. It will then go on tour to Osaka, Yamagata, Fukushima, Miyagi Prefecture, Toyama and Aichi Prefecture till Nov. 28. For more information, visit stage.parco.jp/program/julius.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.