Kabuki @ Sadler’s Wells, London

cast list
Ebizo Ichikawa XI
Kamejir Ichikawa II
For a 400-year old dramatic art form, the Kabuki season at Sadler’s Wells is causing quite a stir. Much of this excitement is down to it being the London debut of Ebizo Ichikawa XI. The latest in a dynasty of renowned kabuki actors, this 28-year old has practically single-handedly reintroduced kabuki to a younger generation.

For the uninitiated, Kabuki is a form of dramatic dance, where all the parts are played by men. As with ballet, the moves are choreographed with great care, and particular interpretations have been performed in the same way for decades.

The movement is slower than anything the word “dance” might readily conjure up, being graceful, controlled and rhythmical rather than an energetic, sweat-dripping affair.

The music – with a strong percussive element – is performed live, by musicians on and off-stage, and the narrative is sung by one or more vocalists. The kabuki actors also sing lines of dialogue, but at times the vocalists take over the dialogue in order to let the actors concentrate on their movement and the expressive elements of their performance.

The singing is, of course, in Japanese and whilst for many in the audience this presented no problems of comprehension, the majority of the audience were glad of the earphone commentary guide available for hire in the foyer. The commentary was clear, authoritative and rich in detail, providing explanations of the story, the meanings of particular movements and lyrics, and even (amusingly) telling the listener when it would be a good time to show appreciation of the performers’ skills.

Paul Griffith, the writer and narrator of the commentary, should be congratulated for an excellent job which enhanced the visual experience immeasurably without overpowering the sometimes eerie effect of the music and singing.

The performance consisted of a double-bill of traditional pieces. The air of excitement in the audience before the show starts is palpable and, incredibly, increases as the lights go off and the music and drumbeats commence for what seems an age in the darkened theatre.

Then the lights burst back on to reveal a minimalist set comprising bare floorboards and a gigantic stylised pine tree, its blossom-draped branches spreading across the back of the set. Percussionists and a flautist kneel stage left while stage right is taken up with singers and Japanese musicians.

Ebizo eventually emerges from behind the trunk of the pine tree, dressed as a beautiful maiden in a wisteria-patterned kimono, face and hands painted white and with the elaborate hairstyle now only seen on geisha.

This first piece, entitled the Wisteria Maiden, features only one actor, and shows the maiden, at times as an abandoned lover, at others as the spirit of the wisteria, and also reunited with her lover.

The performance has the lightest of comic touches – with puns in the lyrics – and a section in which the maiden dances for her lover, then drinks a cup of sake and dances the same movements again – only tipsily. Ebizo performed these scenes well, although his face was a little too manly to be wholly convincing as a woman.

After the lengthy interval comes the second piece: Kasane – a story of murder, revenge and ghosts. In this Ebizo performs the role of a ronin called Yoemon, while his lover Kasane is played by Kamejir Ichikawa II.

In this piece the actors make use of a walkway out, into and past the audience, which really does brings an extra dimension to the performance. The set is also more elaborate, comprising a river complete with banks, bridge, and reeds tall enough to hide behind. Both actors work their way through a series of set-pieces with great skill and grace – the scene where Kasane bends over backwards with Yoemon poised over her in attack is particularly effective.

The symbolism throughout – such as showing a red maple leaf patterned under-kimono to demonstrate Kasane’s bleeding from her wounds – add real depth and poignancy.

Running for only twelve nights, this short London season will delight kabuki veterans and serve as an excellent introduction and great appetite-whetter for those who are new to this ancient artistic tradition.

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