Home > History, Interviews, Theatre > Interview: Producer Thelma Holt – Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai

Interview: Producer Thelma Holt – Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai

“The influence of Japanese theatre has been and is tremendous!”  Thelma Holt

Thelma Holt profile photoThelma Holt CBE began a long and distinguished theatre career as an actress. She then founded the Open Space Theatre in Tottenham and has worked for the Roundhouse, the National Theatre and the Peter Hall Company. She went on to found her own theatre production company, Thelma Holt Limited. She works with the distinguished Japanese Director Yukio Ninagawa to bring Anglo-Japanese theatre to the international stage. She was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by Japan in recognition of her work in fostering cultural exchange between Britain and Japan through theatre.

Diverse Japan is extremely grateful to Ms. Holt for giving up some of her precious time to discuss her involvement as Producer of the epic theatre production Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai starring Stephen Boxer and Masachika Ichimura, which runs from 31st January until 9th February 2013 at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. To book tickets, click here.

Interview: 21st January 2013 (via telephone).

Interviewer: Trevor Skingle on behalf of Diverse Japan

Anjin - The Shogun and the English Samurai

How did your connection with Japanese theatre come about?

My connection with Japanese theatre began when I was very young indeed. I was acting in South Africa and it ran on longer than it should’ve done and when I got home my father said we must go on a very brief world tour. That was my Christmas present. It wasn’t a world tour, there were places we didn’t do but we visited India, Japan and America but we stayed in Japan longer than anywhere else and it had an enormous effect upon me because I saw theatre and I saw Kabuki, all things that tourists do. I found it was an experience because my mother had been in Japan very briefly before the Second World War. When she was there all she seemed to remember, I was too small to know anything about it, was that she didn’t meet Japanese people. We were in a compound and she only met other folk, other Brits. But of course it was the opposite with me. I was meeting all Japanese people and I found there was so much to think about, not about the differences in our culture but to think about what we do that’s similar and it was so clear to me how alike we were. These two island races, the way we behaved, their manners were exquisite, and the Japanese deal in sub text, as we do, and I just found everything exciting and of course I came home and that was it. But then, I saw Yukio Ninagawa. Well, I mean, wouldn’t you? The first was Macbeth (1985) and I have been bringing him to England now for twenty seven years. My main connection with Japan is through Yukio Ninagawa and he visits, hopefully, annually or every eighteen months. We’ve done seventeen Japanese shows and four British, ‘Tango at the End of Winter’ was the first starring, at that stage a not so famous but well known actor, Alan Rickman. The next was ‘Peer Gynt’ with a completely unknown young actor called Michael Sheen who became very famous, as they all did. We’ve done ‘Hamlet’ with Michael Maloney and of course we did the great ‘King Lear’ with Nigel Hawthorne. Every one of them has been joyous but he isn’t my Japanese connection. My connection as far as he is concerned is that he is a great Director.  It’s like saying William Shakespeare is British, well he’s not. He belongs to everybody, and in my opinion you can count really great Shakespearean Directors on one hand and he’s one of them. And that was it, and it’s gone on forever. Well then when I was with Peter Hall I took the National Theatre to Japan. That was an ambition and we did it. It was great! And we’ve done Hands Across the Sea ever since. We now go to the Barbican which is thrilling. This time we’re going to Sadler’s Wells because there isn’t room for us at the Barbican where we did ‘Cymbeline’.

Thelma Holt

Thelma Holt (© All rights reserved)

How much of an influence has Japanese theatre had on you?

The influence of Japanese theatre has been and is tremendous! Tremendous! Of course it has. It’s visually very, very exciting. But, one of the most important things for me has been that I have now seen so much of his work that I have no interest in anything else anyone else does. I mean why drink milk when you’ve got cream? I haven’t the time. I work in England and I’m an English Producer and there isn’t time to do everything. I’ll go to Japan when I can to see him whether we’re doing anything or not. I went to see a rehearsal when I was there earlier this year with our own show in Yokohama and I went back to Tōkyō because I had to see his show – I don’t want to miss anything. But the marvellous thing is in the time I’ve been doing it, for me and Ninagawa this will be our twenty seventh year next year, a very long time. I have been witness to the enormous strides we have made in modern technology so when I first saw a Japanese show I needed simultaneous (translation) and those things stuck in your ears were extremely diverting and were a nuisance. Then I wouldn’t use them. I would get a friend to be a voice over and at the National theatre I used Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, people like that. We’d let the lights go down and then they would very briefly read a synopsis of the first half, and after the interval we did it again. Now if you use a leading actor, they don’t act, they’re wonderful, they don’t need to, they earn their living acting, so they read that synopsis with enormous generosity. They do it well but they’re not trying to say here I am, they don’t need to. But then of course it got better and better and surtitles are not now invasive anymore. I do Ninagawa’s myself with help from Toni Racklin at the Barbican where she and I do all the Shakespeare. We love doing it. Because I’ve been in most of them as an actor it helps as we are sympathetic to each other’s work so we do them together. And then we pass them on when he goes to America where they use ours. On Anjin it’s a different sort of surtitle because there are two languages…

Anjin - The Shogun and the English Samurai Masachika ICHIMURA and Katsuya KOBAYASHI in ANJIN

How did your connection with Anjin come about?

The connection that was made with Anjin was easy. Greg Doran and I were celebrating in Tōkyō. We were there with an RSC production of ‘Othello’. We offer them something each year, if they can they do if they can’t they don’t, and we, Greg and me, went to a luncheon with Mr. Hori and Mrs. Kanamori and we were talking about how to celebrate HoriPro’s fifty years and how to celebrate twenty years of Mrs Kanamori and me, and Greg said “Why don’t we do a play about William Adams?” and he explained what he wanted. It became absolutely clear as he talked, absolutely clear from the very beginning as far as I was concerned, that it couldn’t be done by one writer. We would need Japanese input.

How closely did you work with writers Mike Poulton and Shoichiro Kawai?

Mike Poulton and Shoichiro Kawai worked very very closely together and Greg worked with them. Then we had a read through in England with English actors though they weren’t going to play those roles. There was no point in going to Japan at that stage. HoriPro came for the readings and we all made our contribution. The actual role that Ichimura Masachika plays magnificently, Ieyasu, was read by Geoffrey Hutchings, who sadly passed away, who was a very fine Stratford Trevor Nunn time actor who then went on to do television and ended up in (the TV series) ‘Benidorm’.

What do you think were the most important considerations for the selection of Gregory Doran as Director?

I worked with Greg Doran because I couldn’t work with an English Director on a Japanese thing like that if it wasn’t one I didn’t know. I had to work with him. Greg is, of course, a very great Shakespearean. He wasn’t running the RSC then when we chose him and commissioned five years ago. I love working with him. The Japanese had enjoyed his ‘Othello’ and ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ so they knew him and Mrs Kanamori knew him. We did a test run and so he went to Japan and directed a Japanese production of the ‘Merchant of Venice’ and it was with Ichimura Masachika who played Shylock. Tatsuya Fujiwara, who Ninagawa and I have worked with a number of times, was playing the young Jesuit priest Domenico, speaking English and Japanese, not I hasten to say also speaking Portuguese. We had a young English actor playing a Portuguese priest but he was English and he also spoke Japanese. In much the same way we’ve now done the same thing again with Anjin. One of the priests, played by an English actor called Sam Marks, speaks Japanese and English and had also played in one of Greg’s productions at the Prince of Wales. Yuki Furukawa is playing the role of the English speaking Japanese priest.

Anjin - The Shogun and the English Samurai Battle Scene

The epic play is based on the real-life story of Will Adams (Steve Boxer), known in Japanese as Anjin, who gets washed ashore on Japan and becomes the trusted adviser to the powerful Shogun Tokugawa (Masachika Ichimura). How much research was actually done on Adams?

A hell of a lot of research was done by Greg who shared it with Mike who then did more and then of course Shoichiro did a lot. They did a great deal. They had to. It is, as you know, a dramatized version and in this country, though he merits a decent paragraph in history, he’s not that prominent a person. But Tokugawa we have heard of and if you were doing Oriental Studies you’d know both of them but the megastar would be Tokugawa. William Adam is the man who got lucky. He learnt the language very quickly.

What would you say was the biggest hurdle in getting this Anglo-Japanese production off the ground?

The biggest hurdle in getting this Anglo-Japanese production off the ground was funding. Creatively we really did get everything. HoriPro are amazing. Mr Hori himself is so generous. He really is. I know that they have other various successes so it isn’t only theatre, but they do it for love and it’s very impressive. It really is.

What do you see for the future of Anglo-Japanese theatre productions?

As for the future of Anglo-Japanese Theatre productions, as much Ninagawa as we can get and we already have plans for the future. I hope we’ll be taking the RSC to Japan because every time we go we love it. Propeller (Theatre Company) go and I’m proud of what is put on there. There are so many things we don’t do frightfully well anymore but we do produce magnificent theatre and so do the Japanese. It seems correct and proper that we can exchange as much theatre as we can.

Thank you, Ms. Holt. It’s been a pleasure!

Thank you.

Special thanks to Ruth Moloney at Amanda Malpass PR

Anjin - The Shogun and the English Samurai Masachika ICHIMURA and Kazuya TAKAHASHI in ANJIN

Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre info:

Performance times

Mon – Sat at 7.30pm Wed & Sat Mats at 2.30pm

Running time

3 hrs (including one 20 min interval)


£16, £22, £29, £48

Group Discounts Groups 8+ 20% off stalls seats for most performances. more »

Not available online or in conjunction with any other offer. To book, call the Ticket Office on 0844 412 4300.

Please Note: Under 5s are not admitted to this event.  more »

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Simply buy tickets for this and any other show displaying the save logo at the same time and receive 20% off your tickets.

School discount performances

Wed 6 at 2.30pm & 7.30pm Thu 7 at 7.30pm

Sadler’s Wells Theatre Official Website: www.sadlerswells.com

Anjin - The Shogun and the English Samurai Yoshiko TOKOSHIMA and Ryohei SUZUKI in ANJIN

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