Tuesday, June 12, 2007


some meandering thoughts that don't really do this justice:

i fell in love with Noh Theatre at the age of 17. Except, obviously, i only fell in love with it in the abstract, seeing as there wasn't a lot of it going in Surrey in the late 90s. Truth be told, I fell in love with one page of a theatre history book that i found in my school library - the briefest of overviews of an ancient, foreign art form was enough. Partly i just thought (and still do) that masks were cool. But I was also impressed by the rigidity of Noh's formal structures - its codified language of speech, music and gesture acting as both a representation of the world and as an idealised form of theatrical poetry in its own right. A stage space that has already reached its full realisation, and so remains unchanged for centuries. A largely unchanging narrative structure. This is dramatic convention solidified into a tradition which reaches back over 700 years. The English, even the European, theatre has no such connection with it's antecendants. All our traditions are dead - commedia dell'arte, medieval pageants, the popular voice of the chorus - living performance consigned to history and never to be resurrected, useful, perhaps as a training tool, and half-glimpsed as memories in the occaisional attempt to offer a modern take on the system of human relationships that characterised them. A living tradition which long ago solidified its structures, and yet which somehow still survives, offers more than a conversation with the past - it offers a way of relating to events, to people, to action, which we have forgotten, and which, because it is located in the now (which has never, it's worth remembering, happened before) is in itself a new thing. This is the opposite of the ossified remains of dead structure encoded in the dead and deadening museum walls of London's West End. The only space in London which comes close to provoking us in this way is the rebuilt Globe, ghosted not only by the memory of the players that once played there, but by the new forms of interaction demanded by an old but still dynamic (and essential popular) performance space placed in a modern context with all the no flash photography, mobile phone related-announcements and passing air-traffic that entails.

But I (unsurprisingly) digress.

In looking to the past (and to theatrical traditions outside our own) we discover conventions, codes and rules of performance which, when played now, would be seen as right on the cutting edge of the avant-garde. When Yeats was conducting his theatrical experiments at the Abbey Theatre he drew as heavily from Noh in his attempts to forge a theatrical form as he did from Irish mythology in his attempts to find a National content for his drama. Those plays still have not been, and perhaps never will be, assimilated into the theatrical mainstream in the way that, for example, the earlier works of Beckett have been. In short, they still feel avant-garde, and its pointless to try to force them to conform to the conventions of now and pointless to judge them by how closely they recall these modern conventions. So when Lyn Gardner describes Benjamin Yeoh's translation of Nakamitsu at the Gate as "a titbit", largely on the basis that it lasts little more than 50 minutes, she is making this very error. Some things take a long time, some things don't. Doesn't make long things any better than short nor vice-versa. Sometimes you can travel a fantastic distance in a very short space of time, and that's exactly what happens here.

What we are not presented with is a piece of Noh theatre. Rather Nakamitsu is a piece of contemporary British theatre that draws heavily from Noh. To attempt to imitate the tradition without the specific skills and training it requires would obviously be a fruitless task. So the elements of the design echo elements of a Noh stage without ever trying to copy it just as elements of the performance language echo that of Noh. Performers can suddenly switch to the third person and begin narrating their own actions, often before they've happened (which has multiple of neat effects- forcing us to watch how the specific action unfolds like a good brechtian audience, but also forcing us to watch in the knowledge that the outcome will not be good, removing the possibility that an action may be interrupted no matter how much we may want it to be, making events feel inevitable, yet not making them seem fatalistically predetermined because moments of choice are also highlighted and explored).

Another steal from the Noh tradition is the fantastic use of music, which takes up as much space as the action, and which provides far more than mere athmosperics, driving and illuminating the drama as strong rhythms and beautiful harmonics go straight for the head and the gut. Also, there's an instrument called a hang that looks like a flying saucer.

So, while I've already said that this is very much a piece of modern British drama, it still feels very unfamiliar. The levels of tension at which it is played with heightened delivery of poetic text are generally things that take a while to work up to on the London stage, but here they thrillingly interrupt the dumb-show/prologue/framing device and don't let up until the end. Passages are delivered or sung in Japanese and it makes perfect sense when this happens. As a result, a climactic song in English fails to achieve quite the same level of, errr, height. While the song is beautiful and beautifully performed in itself, having heard the same performers singing in Japanese as they make their journeys accross the narrow traverse space, that song feels more like something you might find in a musical, and less like something you might find in a Noh play or equivalent. If that makes sense.

And I think this is because English as a voiced language is relectuant to go to those kinds of heightened and enobled places. Some people still think that church services in Latin are more, I don't know, sacred - and it's not all that hard to see why. So the extent to which Yeoh, the directors and the production team have discovered a language, both textual and theatrical, which manages to become heightened at all really is an achievement. The only similar performance I've seen in terms of the sheer thrill of being present in a space in which words, and particularly breathe and the bodies' movement are all exciting a heightened state of tension and awareness in the spectator is a production of Sophocles' Electra in ancient Greek at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge, in which the foreign sound of the dead language was so skillfully manipulated by the performers that it felt like they were running you through the gears of some kind of theatrical automatic transmission in your gut. Anyway, when it's working, and it's working rather an impressive lot of the time, that is what's going on here.

The show feels a hell of a lot longer than its 50 minute running time, and that's in no way a negative thing (I know everyone else is saying 45 minutes, but I'm pretty certain I checked my watch when I came out) . Just as the crossing of the beautifully sparse stage can be elongated into a rhythmic, hypnotic song and dance in which we understand something about the nature of journeying, so the action can be halted for comment or further explanation of its details. Time and space become elastic. Dan Bye says some very perceptive things about theatrical space and that which surounds it here, but to carry on a bit and disagree with him a bit, space can be perceived not as absence or emptiness but as the site of action, of events, of articles and artifacts. i am necessarily in space, and the space i am in is altered by my presence as i am by its. Even the empty space is actually always full, even if it's only full of emptiness. Emptiness has meaning, has associations, has a particular way it operates on the head, the gut, the toes. And emptiness can be filled up with all kinds of other nothing - this is the very basis on which mime operates. So when someone moves or speaks within a space (or within a space of time) they are not so much filling a space as acting upon it. When this is done skillfully, space becomes a kind of theatrical piece of putty in the performer's hand, at once being manipulated and remaining very much the same piece of putty.

Gaaargh. I've wibbled on for ages now, without in any way coming to the point. Look, it's on till Saturday - go and see it.


Ben said...

Thanks for coming. And thanks for your thoughts.

The songs in Japanese are based mainly based on haiku we found and so aren't as "ancient" as the core Noh story.

However, I think you are right in that they convey an otherworldliness (is that a word?) which a song in English for a Britsh audience won't have.


On another note, slightly connected. We (Westerners) find Japanese and Chinese writing characters often visually compelling and otherworldly.

However, it seems Japanese often find Western alphabets compelling and otherworldly. Hence the strange in meaning signs you some times find.

Japanese must be equally amused by some of our random printed T-shirts.

alexf said...

cheers for the info and the thougts...

i think otherworldliness is absolutely a word, and i suppose i'm wondering if i'm just talking about that or if i'm talking about a question of the range of the theatrical language and conventions in our possession.

yeah, i'm wondering if it's just the otherness of things that makes them feel, i dunno, heightened, but I suppose I'm groping towards it being something else, because there's plenty of things which seem foreign to me which don't seem to be heightened at all.

I think the point I'm trying to make is that we don't really have a theatrical language that allows for text to be delivered in a way that is very much 'better than life', better than everyday speech. So songs in British theatre are traditionally a part of our 'lowest' theatrical forms. We also don't have a theatrical language in which the delivery of text can be varied through different levels of formality as there is (as i understand it) in Noh, and as there definitely was in ancient greek theatre - so you could range from normal speech, through chant, through to different levels of song. If you chant something in English you'll likely look silly.

Anyway, one of the things that i really appreciated about Nakamitsu was the way it really did begin to find a range of this kind.