Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Stunning Noh Theatre, Both Old and New

Takasago & Between the Stones

Unancio, Jannette Cheong & Richard Emmert, , Purcell Room, Southbank Centre , January 31, 2020
Takasago & Between the Stones  by  Unancio, Jannette Cheong & Richard Emmert, I’ve wanted to get into more diverse theatre for years now. Through all the experimental stuff I sink my teeth into, the foundations of theatre are something which has also interested me.

An opportunity came up at the Southbank Centre to see some Noh theatre. This centuries old form of theatre from Japan, is not much like kabuki, it’s more famous dramatic rival. Though it does happen to be a very distilled, stylised way of creating theatre. Whilst the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre might not rival that of an actual Noh theatre, London was blessed for two nights in some remarkable visions. It’s been around for over 650 years for a reason.

The second act of Takasago by Zeami Motokiyo demonstrated all the fundamentals of the craft. We are witness to elaborate costumes and masks, the band of flute and various drums who play, in atheistic, rhythmic music and the chorus who sing back and forth to the characters. The movement of the actors is sensational. Every single motion is displayed in such a way that it can feel stifling, though mesmerising. Even the flick of the toes as a character walks in or the swish of a giant sleeve of the costumes, the finest detail to be noted and marvelled at. As the God of Sumiyoshi, Akira Matsui stunned us. This story about two pine trees in love is simple and touching and this act offers Matsui opportunities to show off what Noh is all about. It was a half hour which simply flew by.

I was intrigued in knowing how newly created Noh work would compare to the more traditional canon. In Between the Stones by Jannette Cheong, we were treated to a blissful and touching work about grief and the joy of gardens. Jubilith Moore carried most of the work as The Traveller (her earthy singing voice stays with you), who’s mentor had died and she returns to the garden in Kyoto where they first went together. There she sees a lady (the awesome Kinue Oshima) tending to the garden, saying how a peaceful soul is obtained through these measures. As she leaves, a priest (a tentative Ashley Thorpe) arrives to tell The Traveller she is the last one there, due to a typhoon warning and that two children were reported missing, with only one body being found. Conversation also reveals that there is no lady who looks after the garden, a satisfying Woman in Black moment. In the second act now in a garden in the east, the lady returns to reveal herself as the Spirit of the Silent Waves, dancing and singing and is joined by the Spirit of the Winter Butterflies (the delightful Iori Oshima). This spirit harks back to the quote said earlier by the lady, as if death was “like winter butterflies in a silent breeze”.

I found the whole piece to be exquisite in many respects. Music and direction by Richard Emmert both equal highlights and choreography by Kinue Teruhisa Oshima finely matched to the themes on stage. The handling of mourning a friend was dealt with in a very fine way, with a zen like perception. This proves that Noh continues to thrives all these centuries later, with such rousing work. Much respect to the band here who play for most of it, the piercing flute coming back to haunt your soul time after time, the drummers pounding out beats that go on for eternity. Fan work here was also noteworthy, everytime there were unfurled seemed to have some great significance, the posturing of arms and hands also eye-catching

Whether or not Noh works in English might be a different debate. Though, I know a haiku might lose some of its beauty when translated into any other language, this does help work become more accessible. The strange, warbling quality makes English sound curious to the ear, as if heard for the first time. I would certainly encore more work in this medium and perhaps some more experimental styles as well.

Impressive and transgressive.

Rating: 4 stars

Takasago & Between the Stones continues on tour with performances in Kilkenny, Ireland, Wexford, England & Paris, France.

Photo Credit: Southbank Centre

Reviewed by: James Ellis

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