It will take me a few days to digest what I saw yesterday night at Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London. Theatre Nohkagu’s double bill of Kiyotsune and ‘shinsaku eigo noh’ Pagoda, written by British playwright Jannette Cheong and Richard Emmert has been a rich experience, and I already know I will want to come back to my notes again and again later. I would rather not give a review of the play, as it would be a limiting practice for something so formative. Aesthetic evaluation apart, the central question rising is ‘what is Noh’? Previously, in SOAS canteen, Emmert and I were talking about the nature of Noh from the perspective of the foreigner, and the purpose and future of Noh in English. The mind immediately goes to European opera, whose language was transformed from Italian into French, English, German, etc. We now accept all these languages as if they legitimately belonged to the opera world. My teacher Udaka Michishige was never involved in such transcultural Noh productions, however his judgment on postmodern experiments is rather positive, as they might be seeds that cross-fertilise a theatre form on the verge of stall. Experiments done in the West might well be source of inspiration for Japanese-based performers. Yokomichi Mario’s heavily debated Takahime, (re)appropriation of Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well, already provided an example in the 1950s. It is pointless to discuss the value of Noh in English on the basis of personal taste as what floats on the surface of aesthetic judgment is not meant to stay. Let us look at what this new way of writing and performing Noh is telling us, about how issues of authenticity and cultural ownership have to be re-examined. Whose Noh was that? Will Noh be multilingual in the future? Probably its performers will be.
Launch of the Centre for International Theatre and Performance Research at Royal Holloway University of London.
From the university website:
‘The Centre for International Theatre and Performance Research, in operation from 2009, is a key feature of the Department’s research strategy. It fosters research across a range of historical, geographical, political and methodological spheres to advance cutting-edge thinking on theatre and performance topics with a distinct international inflection. The centre operates as an intellectual and structural support for researchers of all levels, from postgraduate through to senior staff, and an umbrella for individual and collaborative projects within the Department. It also facilitates links with innovative research centres, projects and networks within and beyond Britain, as well as with local performing arts bodies and their interpretive communities. Although its focus is primarily on theatre and performance research, the Centre is interdisciplinary in both spirit and practice, incorporating perspectives from anthropology, history, musicology, literary studies, film and cultural geography.’
Prof. Helen Gilbert (founder and director of the Centre) kindly asked me, as PhD student in the department, and as Noh practitioner, to take part of the launch and give a little demonstration for the large audience attending the event. My choice fell on the shimai Tamura no kiri, the last dance of the shuramono (ghost warrior Noh) Tamura. After having performed quite a few times for international audiences not necessarily acquainted with Noh theatre, I realised it is rather counterproductive to feed in the expectation of Noh as slow, refined, and boring. The kiri section of a shuramono piece is instead dynamic, energetic, powerful. In this case, the general Tamuramaro recounts how he annihilated a horde of demonic invaders with the help of Kannon’s powers (Kannon is the Japanese name of the Bodhisattva of Mercy Avalokitesvara).
After the performance, I received several interesting comments which generally expressed the surprise of many of the spectators in seeing such a dynamic Noh dance. The general expectation is that of stasis and sophistication and not of strong chant and jumps. The excitement of the comments and the numerous questions I received made me reflect on how little of Noh is known outside Japan. Last time I attended a full-day of Noh, with a piece performed for each of the five categories, I was amazed by how plays differ from each other – to the point that I had the illusion of seeing different genres on stage, not only Noh.
A few days after this day, I attended a performance by Noh professionals somewhere else – they chose to perform a sophisticated piece of the 3rd (women) group. They literally killed the audience, who were by rights unprepared to enjoy this complex play. The performance simply confirmed the commonplace of Noh as slow, cryptic, difficult and boring genre. I myself was bored, probably influenced by the communal spirit that sometimes takes over the stalls.
This again reveals the deep misunderstanding, or even indifference of many Japanese Noh performers for the needs of an audience which is not the usual, domesticated spectatorship they are used to in Japan. Noh offers such a great variety of plays which can be enjoyed by all sort of people – why performing Kokaji (The Fox Swordsmith) for children at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo while we get slow Genji Monogatari pieces? There is a lot to say about Orientalist assumptions … what about Occidentalist assumptions? We still have a long way to come…
(Photo © Jannie Rask)
Dramatic launch for new Drama and Theatre research centre