Thelma Holt brings Anjin to British shores
We talk to Thelma Holt about her new production “Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai”

English navigator William Adams is believed to be the first Englishman ever to travel to Japan, arriving over 400 years ago in 1600. He became an advisor to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu after first impressing him with his knowledge of shipbuilding, and was later involved with the establishment of trading factories between Japan and Britain. In fact, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the first British trading post in Hirado. During his time in Japan, William Adams was credited with many privileges by the shogun and was bestowed the extraordinary honour of being made a samurai, adopting the name Miura Anjin.

Masachika Ichimura as Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and Stephen Boxer as Miura Anjin

Although William Adams is an important figure in the history of Japan-UK relations, most British people know little about him. As Ms Holt, remarks "I was not taught about him at school, nor were most Brits I'm sure, but to the Japanese he is a very important person when considering the history of Japanese foreign relations." The idea to tell the story of William Adams came over a lunch meeting during one of Ms Holt's regular visits to Tokyo with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), with whom she has a long-standing relationship.

She recalls, "Gregory Doran [Artistic Director of the RSC], who was doing Othello in Japan at the time, had read several books on the subject and was attracted to the idea of telling the story of Samurai William. Although at the time I didn't know much about him, I thought he was a very interesting figure and so we commissioned a writer, Mike Poulton. However, Adams is a figure who means a great deal to the Japanese and it became very apparent to me that we needed a Japanese writer as well, and we found Shoichiro Kawai to join the project. They worked well together - quite an achievement for two writers!"

This new play is written in both Japanese and English and was first performed in Japan in 2009 as part of a large-scale collaboration between Japanese producers HoriPro and the RSC. "We always liked the idea of taking it to London for a short season," says Ms Holt. "However, we had to recast some people as they were no longer available." For this production Stephen Boxer joins Masachika Ichimura for the two leading roles of William Adams and Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Yuki Furukawa joins as a young Jesuit Priest following his success in the 'HoriPro’s 50th Anniversary Actor Audition'. Gregory Doran returns as Director.

Surtitles are provided in both English and Japanese, but as Ms Holt remarks, "Simultaneous translation has changed very much now compared to the old days and the British audience will be able to recognise the English-speaking characters as real personalities. Rather than pointing out the differences, I am interested in emphasising the similarities between our two cultures - regardless of our separation by speech." People certainly shouldn't be put off by the Japanese language. As Ms Holt points out, "Opera is always sung in a foreign language - but it doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the action on stage."

Ms Holt has been much involved with Japanese theatre, particularly through her relationship with Yukio Ninagawa, and her achievements were recognised when the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays and Rosette was conferred on her by the Japanese Government in the spring of 2004 (click here for details).

Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai runs at London's Sadler's Wells from 31 January to 9 February 2013. For more information, please check the Sadler’s Wells website.