Noh is a kind of Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Playwright Ben Yeoh brings the form bang up to date in a powerful and entertaining adaptation of a classic noh text.
Yeoh’s slim script won the Gate Theatre and Oberon Books Translation Prize 2006 and it’s in Notting Hill’s intimate Gate Theatre that the work gets its stage debut. As the audience file in to the narrow performance space, you are confronted by the sight of a man in school boy’s garb, who gyrates on the stage before performing a slow striptease. It’s a disorientating start, and just as it is become apparent that the opening scene is set in some sort of seedy Tokyo club, two shouting men dash onto the stage and a gun battle erupts.
It’s a tense and exhilarating start. Yeoh then follows this jarring contemporary prologue with a shits back to ancient Japan for the meat of the story. As the actors don long black robes, we learn that the son of Lord Mitsunaka, Bijiyo, has squandered his education. Mitsunaka is so angered by his son’s laziness that he decides the boy must be put to death. When his loyal servant Nakamitsu prevents him from doing so, Mitsunaka charges him with the job of performing the act himself, forcing Nakamitsu to make an agonising decision between duty and love.
In contrast to the play’s opening moments, these scenes are performed in a more ritualized fashion with exaggerated movements and a lot of music and dance. A constant percussive accompaniment to the action is supplied by musician Anshuman Biswas from one side of the stage.
Despite the more formal performance style, the actors invest their roles with real power and it’s impossible not to become emotionally gripped by the unfolding story and by Nakamitsu’s plight. The four-man cast, particularly Richard Clews in the title role, invest their parts with real energy and passion.
Both the staging and the story are poetic in their simplicity and, this combined with the music, makes the piece into something that you can connect with on both an intellectual and emotional level. It’s also very visually striking. The stage is a narrow strip of white onto which the occasional splashes of colour the symbolic swathes of silk and drops of blood stand out dramatically.
It’s all over in under an hour, leaving you with ample time to migrate to the pub downstairs and talk about this unusual, yet strangely magical production.