I like theatre, I like Japan, inevitably sooner or later I had to go see some Japanse Kabuki. When I mentioned to penny_p
(who lived in Japan for a year) yesterday that I was going to see a Kabuki play she wanted to know how long the show was - "You know they're supposed to last about a day, right?" But no, what's at Sadler's Wells at the moment is an edited version of a classic play, Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees
. Or rather, it's three scenes taken from that epic play cycle, as this is very much a chance for Westerners to dip a toe into Kabuki (although understandably the theatre was also packed with Japanese expats.) Accordingly the play is performed in Japanese, but with everyone in the audience given a headset on which you can listen to a translation of the story. Additonally, in the quieter moments, the narration gives you interesting facts about the performance you're watching, explaining the conventions behind some of the things a Western audience might find odd. It takes a few moments to acclimatise but after a while you get used to combining the show with the narration and getting the full picture.
Although the titular Yoshitsune (Ōtani Tomoemon) does appear, we're mainly concerned with his lover Shizuka (Nakamura Shibajaku) and the trusted officer, Satō Tadanobu, who's been set to guard her. Tadanobu is played by the show's star actor, Ichikawa Ebizō XI, who at 32 is considered particularly young to have reached his current level of success (Ebizō is a stage-name, inherited from his father but only conferred on him when it was decided he'd earned it.) There's a journey through cherry-blossom, a magical drum and, something I associate very strongly with Japanese mythology, a human character who turns out to have been a magical fox in disguise all along. This section of the play might well have been chosen because the three scenes cover three distinct different styles of Kabuki performance. The first scene, featuring a big action sequence, was easily my favourite, not just because I'm a boy so I like fitey stuff, but also because it had more interesting traditions to find out about, like the specific drum roll that indicates something supernatural is happening, or the fact that a character doing a somersault means he's died. The second scene I found incredibly dull - technically a dance, it was essentially a very slow narration of very little story. The third scene was a bit better, with Nakamura Yoshiharu's pretty set becoming quite important, as the skill often being shown off was Ebizō's quick-changes and suprise appearances out of multiple trapdoors.
Maybe I should have called this a not-review as the whole genre is new to me (I never studied Japanese theatre on my drama course; our department did
have a Noh and Kabuki expert but he left the year I started and they didn't replace him while I was there¹) and I can only take it on face value. I'm glad I went, as it's an experience in itself, but I think I enjoyed leraning about the performance more than I enjoyed the performance itself. For instance the aforementioned stage names that are also marks of achievement and/or respect. The lead actor is likely to have three different stage names in his life, having been given the first stage name of Ichikawa Shinnosuke VII as a child, then "graduating" to his current name of Ebizō - if his career continues to follow its current path, when he's older he's likely to become Danjūrō XIII, the name currently held by his father (number XII.) It sounds incredibly complicated but I can see how it makes sense inheriting these titles down the family line³ in the context of Kabuki originating centuries ago. I can see how you could have people saying they'd seen the great old Kabuki master Danjūrō, his son the matinee idol Ebizō, and hey young Shinnosuke looks like he might be good when he grows up as well; and generations down the line people could still see the same big names they'd always heard about. Am I making sense? Well point is, it got me thinking, which is always a good sign.Kabuki (Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura)
by Takeda Izumo II, Miyoshi Shōraku and Namiki Senryū is booking until the 15th of June at Sadler's Wells.
¹still, you can't cover everything in three years, and if we'd squeezed in Kabuki we might not have had time for Russian Revolutionary Theatre, and then where would we be? Imagine a world without Mystery Bouffe
²yes that's right, given none of my former coursemates, to my knowledge, read this blog, I just did a protracted in-joke only I would get.
³although as I say, the inheritance is not automatic and has to be earned