“There are artists whose integrity is so intact that it does not matter what they are proposing to do, you are just on board right away,” she says. “Hiro approached me and I did not need to hear much of what it was about. I just said yes.”
Birthday Present for Myself will be staged at the Capitol Theatre on November 18 and 19.
“The story is very simple,” says Ida. “It is about an old man, 84 years old, and the last five minutes of this life. And beyond. Before and after death.”
Ida plays the old man, and Girvan plays his wife who died four years previously.
“The thematic material feels important,” Girvan says, “because it is about a man’s last day alive. And because it has this provocative title, it kind of feels celebratory, marking the day of his birth. It is a birthday present but is also his death day, and there are themes of control vs. acceptance and confusion vs. clarity.
“That is not to say it is a heavy or depressing play,” she says. “Anyone who knows Hiro knows he has a wicked sense of humour and so there are moments that are very light, and the feeling at the end is of such hope and beauty that it will not leave people feeling heavy at all.
“Hiro explained to me that when his father was dying, he kind of knew who was around him, but at the same time even though it was summer, he would say, ‘it’s snowing,’ so there was this blurring of reality, a dreamstate.”
Girvan says her character is “really not of this world any more. In his altered state, can he can really see her because he is crossing through that thin space between life and death? Or is it his imagination, just a manifestation of the side that is trying to accept things? She is trying to help him to accept. She is an older woman but in this altered reality she is not really any age, so in his eyes she is every age at once.”
Ida recounts a story of his childhood, when his grandfather was cremated. Someone took him outside to see the smoke coming from the chimney of the cremation oven. “That’s your grandfather now,” they said.
He says that gave him a peaceful feeling in the face of death, and he wants to recreate that feeling in Birthday Present for Myself.
Ida will perform part of the piece wearing a mask of the kind used in traditional Japanese Noh theatre, one of the oldest theatre traditions in the world.
The idea for the production was inspired by a piece of music: Birthday Present for Myself, by the contemporary Russian composer Pavel Karamanov.
“The first time I listened to this music, the images started coming.”
With the composer’s permission to use both the music and the title, this and several other Karamanov pieces will be played onstage during the performance by clarinetist Nicola Everton, pianist Sue Gould, cellist Jeff Farragher, and violinist Martine den Bok along with Girvan singing soprano.
“It is beautiful music,” Girvan says. “It is minimalistic but thematically it fits beautifully with what Hiro is trying to do. It is not overly complicated, but it engages you the whole time. It echoes those themes of being in that middle ground where you are open and accepting of things.”
Girvan will also sing a piece by Handel — the favourite piece of music of the man’s wife when she was alive — which she says melds mysteriously and successfully with the more modern music of Karamanov.
She says the musicians have a mysterious role on stage.
“They interact with Hiro. So is this accompaniment? Or are they characters in his last moments on earth? Is it a concert, is it a dance, is it a drama?”
Ida has written and produced three theatre pieces in the past few years at the Capitol: Detour, The Gift, and Kessa. He also had important roles in the operas Jorinda and KHAOS.
Below, from left: Hiromoto Ida, Allison Girvan, Jeff Faragher, Sue Gould, Nicola Everton. Photo by James Tucker. The two photos above are by Yosimasa Suzuki.