Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director Gregory Doran discusses his “great samurai epic” Anjin at Sadler’s Wells

Masachika Ichimura and Katsuya Kobayashi in Anjin

Masachika Ichimura and Katsuya Kobayashi in Anjin - Credit: Archant

The true story of a ship-wrecked English sailor who became a respected Samurai after being washed up on Japanese shores is the focus of an action-packed epic at Sadler’s Wells at the end of the month.

Masachika Ichimura in Anjin

Masachika Ichimura in Anjin - Credit: Archant

The artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) Gregory Doran, was inspired by the tale of William Adams – who became known in Japanese as Anjin, the “blue-eyed samurai” – whilst touring Japan eight years ago.

Anjin, the story of William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan will be told in a new play at

Anjin, the story of William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan will be told in a new play at Sadler's Wells beginning on January 31 - Credit: Archant

Doran was looking to produce a season focusing on the rest of the world during Shakespeare’s time, and realized the story marked the moment Japan and England “first met” 400 years ago.

As war threatened to erupt, Adams – who is believed to be the first Englishman to ever reach Japan – became a trusted adviser to the powerful Shogun Tokugawa.

“Not only had he arrived in this interesting place, but Japan was going through this extraordinary period of its history, a crisis point, just before a famous battle which was the equivalent of the Battle of Hastings, and which radically changed the history of Japan,” said Gregory.

You may also want to watch:

“William Adams witnessed Japan going through these immense changes and fell in love with Japan. The Shogun relied on him and these two men have an extraordinary meeting of minds.”

Doran appointed English and Japanese writers to produce a script, and Anjin: The Shogun And The English Samurai was performed for the first time in Tokyo in 2009.

Most Read

Spoken in both English and Japanese, the intercultural project sees subtitles in both languages built into the structure of the set.

“It’s wonderful to hear those languages because you realise how alien the two cultures are to each other,” added Gregory, who found it was the most exciting production he had ever worked on.

“There’s something very exotic about Samurais,” he said. “It’s a great epic with horses and huge battles.

“The sharing of the two different theatrical experiences was wonderful, the two nationalities have very different ways of working,” he explained.


“British actors are much more used to engaging in a play and being collaborative in their approach, and expect to contribute to their individual role and how the whole play is put together, but I think the Japanese have an astonishing sense of discipline and rigour in the way they work.”

Gregory, who lives just off Upper Street in Islington, can see similarities to Shakespeare, as one clan struggles against another.

“Like a Shakespeare history play you have two sides battling it out with different generals you have to identify, but in Shakespeare it’s hard enough to say this is the Duke of York and this is the Duke of Gloucester.

“But when the Samurais come on, there’s no mistaking them – one of them was known as the Red Devil, he had red horns on his helmet, another had deer horns on his helmet, and another had this yak hair so he looked like a great big shaggy yonk – in terms of signifiers for the audience it was a delight from that point of view,” he added.

As in Shakespeare’s work, there is comic relief, which comes from the foot soldiers and “embarrassingly” the English.

“By the time they arrived the English behaved appallingly, they were completely inept and took the wrong stuff to trade, it was quite a time before they got a foothold in Japan,” said Gregory.

He also finds the production provides an interesting reflection on how the English were viewed by Shogun Tokugawa, a man who was keen to trade with them before his successors effectively closed the country off for 200 years.

The show’s run at Sadler’s Wells will launch the 2013 celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Anglo-Japanese diplomatic and trade relations.

The production runs at the theatre, in Rosebery Avenue, Clerkenwell, from Thursday, January 31 to Saturday, February 9.

Tickets are priced between £16 and £48. Call 0844 412 4300 or see

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter