A few posts ago I mentioned that there was “a Noh performance I saw years ago in London, something very much modern and Western and experimental and whatever, but drawing upon Noh,” and that I would re-post what I had written about it at the time. Here it is (my new comments from today in italics):
June 15, 2007
I met up with a friend for a play – I’m at a loss for the proper words to describe it, but independent post-modern highly artistic English-language rewrite of a classic Noh play ought to cover it. It was actually really cool.
The play is about a samurai retainer, named Nakamitsu, who is ordered by his lord (Mitsunaka) to kill his lord’s son, Bujio. Bujio had been sent to a monastery to learn and to become a wise, educated, and deserving heir, but instead he lazed around and did not study. Out of anger, therefore, his father orders him killed. However, Bujio’s retainer feels it his duty to sacrifice himself in his lord’s place; this retainer is Nakamitsu’s son Kuchio. So now Nakamitsu must choose between Kuchio and Bujio, whether to kill his lord’s son, or his own.
I’ve never heard of Nakamitsu as a traditional play, though searching for “Nakamitsu Noh”, that is, 『仲光 能』, in Google in Japanese does seem to yield quite a number of references to it. Even if it is a traditional play – and the core of the plot certainly makes it seem it could be – I have to wonder how much has been changed. Bujio and Kuchio do not sound to me like normal Japanese names, and the idea of having Nakamitsu’s father be Mitsunaka also seems a Western contrivance.
Having heard that it was an English version of a classic play, I was expecting something much more traditional. It was far from that, but it was nevertheless wonderful. There was something of a preshow while people found their seats – quite disturbing really, essentially two of the actors doing a strip-show right down to their thong underwear. I suppose it was meant to set the scene as being a strip club or something, because a number of gangsters then burst in, shouting in Japanese. One pulls a gun on a second man, and the third begs that he be shot instead, his friend spared. The two argue for some time over who should be the one to die, to sacrifice themselves in order to save their friend/colleague.
Everyone changes into traditional robes, and the play begins in earnest… relating this tale of Nakamitsu. It was very artistic, using colored swaths of fabric to represent different things, and even at one point to move the very ground under a character, as the cloth is pulled out from under him. The stage was like a fashion runway (a long strip of stage, with audience on either side, not a traditional/standard theatrical space at all), which was strange, but actually worked out really well, as there were only two rows of audience on either side of this strip – it made you get really enraptured into the atmsophere of the play. A painted pine tree stood at one end of the stage – a traditional essential element of Noh, to represent the Shinto aspects of spirit and power in nature, as well as the unreal, spiritual nature of the events being depicted and the eternal and the universal as well. A small but fantastically versatile set of exotic (traditional non-Japanese, and non-Western) musical instruments sat at the other end, played by whichever actors were not on stage at a given time. – The actors were quite versatile too.
One of the instruments was kind of like a kettle drum, like two giant gongs or woks stuck together, and with large dimples in it like a kettle drum. I am really curious what this was, and what culture it might come from. It was played masterfully with gentle taps of the hand or fingers, and resonated long enough that the sound of each tap blended with previous taps to form a sound which resembled or emulated a full set of instruments – like playing one violin or guitar or drum or whatever and having it sound like five.
The instrument, as I learned shortly afterwards, is called a hang. It seems like it would be a traditional instrument from somewhere in Southeast Asia perhaps, based on its sound, but was apparently developed quite recently by a group based in Switzerland. They only produce a very limited number of them, and the process of ordering is extremely difficult, as I understand it. Which is a terrible shame, because if it were a traditional instrument, well, even gamelan instruments or shamisen are not that hard to come by. Also, interestingly, I’ve seen/heard people playing them several times in London, e.g. just hanging out in the park or at a flea market, playing, and yet have never seen the instrument in New York or Japan. You’d think if it was some new age newly hip thing, and if some random middle class white kids in London could get their hands on one, then Americans or Japanese would have too…. Maybe it’s just about the prohibitive costs of flying to Switzerland to visit the studio in person, which is apparently a necessary part of the purchasing process.
Wow, there was just so much to it to talk about. The adoption of the Noh techniques of self-narration: characters saying “He pulls his sword, and prepares to kill his only son.” rather than simply speaking lines or having a separate narrator. The Noh technique of walking a few steps, and through narration and symbolic movements, representing the journey of many miles. The intensity of their performance – all the men were completely covered in sweat by the end. The very warrior-like and manly dance number at the end – a lot of very strong movements and “hoo hah” sort of vocalizations, more like a karate kata than a dance, I suppose, but bordering indeed on the kind of artistic symbolic meaning of interpretive dance.
Overall, certainly one of those artsy productions that not everyone will “get” and not everyone will like. But Julia and I definitely enjoyed.
I would love to see it again. Wish it were going to be performed again, here, or in New York, or somewhere (and somewhen) I might be able to catch it.