Monday, 25 February 2013

Park Theatre, Finsbury Park

At last! Finsbury Park has a new theatre. I've seen the dream...

...and now, I've seen the reality!

Walking through the site this morning, I got that wonderful fizzing feeling you only get when something inspires you completely. All the signs were there:
(1) Grinning like an idiot
(2) thinking about exciting new productions
(3) taking photos like it's going out of fashion (which it probably is)
(4) more grinning like an idiot
(5) an almost irresistible urge to volunteer or become an unpaid intern, just to have an excuse to be there more
(6) terrible impatience for my various works in progress to be FINISHED, proposed, accepted and put on here!

It also didn't hurt in the slightest that the small theatre, Park 90, which I first saw from the players' entrance this morning the perfect size and shape for a play that lives - for the moment - on the edges of my consciousness, inspired by the sounds and the playing spaces of Noh theatre. 

It took Park Theatre six years to be at the 'almost open' stage it is now. I, and the Noh Theatre Project, will take inspiration from that. Practice. Train. Experiment. Play.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Noh Notebook: Disembodied Voices

Teika - a play about a dead woman, Princess Shokushi, trapped in the living world by her former lover's obsession with her - is, like Motomezuka which I'd seen the previous week, not an easy play to watch. All 'woman' category plays are known for being long, demanding and sad: I find it hard to stay attentive. But, if I manage to give myself over wholly to the strangeness of the play, suddenly everything seems more profound.

The heroine is trapped, disembodied, in the living world. Again and again in the first act, the play forces you to dwell on that. The main actor's voice, clear and more bell-like than many other plays I've seen, enters the stage from behind the open curtain a long time before the character actually appears. That voice continued to take centre stage, using (to my ears) a bigger, richer range than usual, overshadowing the relatively simply dressed heroine. The long sung speeches often seemed to address no-one in particular, and could have been coming from anywhere. So, even standing there in full mask and costume:

Princess Shokushi always seemed alone, and unreachable. At the end of the first half, in utter silence (no music, no chorus, nothing), the Princess turns her back to the audience and looks at the framework representing her grave:

Later, as a ghost in the second half, the Princess calls out in the darkness but again reaches no-one. Her ghost, represented by a body but NOT a body, is trapped inside her grave by a climbing vine. And unfortunately for her, the priest's prayers (which often save the day completely in noh and allow spirits to enter Buddhist paradise) are here only enough to loosen the vine for a few minutes so that the Princess can dance, once. Then, the vine tightens again, and the the ghost spirals around her grave in smaller and smaller circles, before being forced back into her lovers' prison.

This very simple story took almost 2 hours to tell.  But for me, on that day, the slow, 'real time' (as much as you can say that for a genre of plays that customarily shoot backwards and forwards whole lifetimes) unfurling of the plot, was what drew me in, and made the play a thing of beauty.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Noh Notebook: Noh Goodbyes

Five weeks and almost a year's worth of noh learning after my return to Tokyo, on 2nd February, my final weekend of noh on this trip arrived, inevitably. Like last time (and equally unsuccessfully) I tried to take a true likeness of that magical 5-metre square with me, in pen and paper:

then, for good measure, I did the same thing in neon:

I savoured the opening notes of the flute's oshirabe, which always heralds the entry of the chorus - along the side of stage left, through the little door at the back -

and then, at 90 degrees, the musicians - otsuzumi, kotsuzumi, nohkan, in a line along the back:

None of the actors had arrived yet, but I knew they were on the way. The stage was set, as it always - delightfully - is. There was nothing to do but to let the first play begin!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Noh Notebook: A Theatrical Glutton in Tokyo

The closer my return to the UK looms, the more obsessed I get with seeing as much noh as possible. On my penultimate weekend, once Saturday morning's Noh Training Project utai-shimai class was over, the only real reason I left one noh theatre was to go to another.

First, having finally cracked the basic movements of the Ami-no-Dan dance from the play Sakuragawa, I dashed straight to a special programme at Kita Nohgakudo which, extremely unusually, featured an eight-strong chorus made up entirely of female professional noh actors.Even though the world noh-as-hobby students is full of women, you very rarely see female noh actors on stage as professionals, playing to paying audiences and organising their own kai (sponsored performances).

The main play of the day was Motomezuka, a 'tormented woman' play considered to be one of the most depressing in the whole repertory. In a long, slow concert of torment about the spirit of a woman who, in life, caused the death of two suitors and then killed herself in remorse. But although priests pray for the release of her soul (as often happens in noh plays) in this play there is no redemption. In the last scene, she climbs back into her grave/prison still singing of her suffering. But the music is haunting and beautiful, and the women's voices enlivened the text so differently to the way I'd heard men's choruses do it before, that this time, I felt oddly uplifted by it. From the shomenseki (front view) seats, I got a good look at said chorus:

Another full programme followed on Sunday, at the Kanze Nohgakudo in Shibuya. The first play was Tamura, one of my favourite warrior plays. At first it's all about a cute boy looking at flowers and waterfalls...

...until a 'noh-speciality' time shift reveals that the boy is actually an incarnation of the shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaru. Suddenly the boy returns dressed as a warrior in a huge hat and kimono, and the play becomes a dynamically danced run-through of battle-victories:

Next, Sumidagawa - which I last saw in a huge church in London of all places with one or two of the same actors playing. None of the 'mother and lost child' plays are my absolute favourites, but the sadness of the mother in this play moves me every time. Here, she is about to get on a boat to go and find her son's grave (not yet knowing that he's dead, but fearing he is). The boatman is already behind her: 

I'd never seen the final play, Choryo, before. A Chinese story about a general who goes through a series of tests so he can receive a scroll containing the secrets of warfare from a deity who isn't too keen to let him off easily. I've read it as a story before, and Pound and Fennelosa translated the play into English in 1916. It's a pretty standard heroic story, really, but for a noh play it is very unusual: it's one of the very few plays where the waki secondary actor is actually the main character. Here he is fighting the deity who doesn't want to give him the scroll, and then (after he wins) reading it: 

And so ended another weekend of noh. Any guilt I might have felt about the number of hours I'd spent sitting in the theatre on two of the sunniest winter days I'd ever seen, disappeared much sooner than it ought to have. 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

National Noh Theatre: Happy 30th Birthday!

The National Noh Theatre has come of age: it is 30 years old this year. I knew it but hadn't taken much notice until I went in to drop off a set of proofs for the series I'm editing (Book 2, at last!) and saw countless posters for this years' Japan Arts Council sponsored noh and kyogen programmes. The info is all on the National Noh Theatre's website, but the posters are much more beautiful:

I'm a bit sad that I have to leave Tokyo and miss most of these! 

I can't really complain, though: by the time I go back to London next week, I'll have seen more noh in a month than most noh enthusiasts who live in Tokyo might see in a year: two plays on the first trip, three on the second, five on the third, and four on the final weekend, followed by a trip to the only bookshop in central Tokyo that ONLY sells noh books. 

Nope, can't complain, at all.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Masks at an Exhibition

At exhibitions, my staying power is short. Half an hour, and then however big the exhibition is, I want to be in the gift shop. But, at a huge noh exhibition held in a Ginza department store to celebrate Zeami's 650th anniversary, I broke my own rule and stayed for over an hour!

My sudden surge of energy was mainly because of the masks they had on display. Normally, you're lucky if you get to see one priceless relic mask close up. At this exhibition there were about 50 of them, all almost close enough to touch. Noh masks are unsettling - expressionless, but full of a vitality that is completed once the actor is wearing it. My favourite was the old woman who remembers being beautiful, higaki onna.

In full lighting viewed straight on, she looks shocked - perhaps a bit annoyed. Angled slightly this way or that - totally different. Lights don't usually go down in a noh performance so the actors' very subtle gestures have to do all the work. But the effects are even more dramatic with stage lighting. This week, on the stage of a fusion performance I went to at Tokyo's Spiral Hall, the lone noh actor was wearing this very mask. During the show, he had filled the stage with a fizzing energy even though he was sitting still most of the time. But when the lights started to fade, the mask, and the character, seemed to turn to stone and disappear. All in absolute stillness.

I've been reading quite a bit about noh masks lately, and the more I read, the more fascinating they become. Best of all was an article I came across in No/Kyogen Masks and Performanceabout the actor's relationship with the mask, an interview with Udaka Michishige, an important shite main actor in the Kongo school of noh. Where there is a choice of masks for a particular play, he, like lots of other noh actors, implies that to a surprisingly large extent the mask chooses its actor - for him to be comfortable wearing it, there was to be a degree of 'right' ness about the mask, which fits its bearer. This was particularly interesting coming from Michishige, who is both mask-maker and noh actor.

In another article in the same book, the late Kanze Hisao explains a bit more about the unusually intimate relationship a noh actor has with his chosen mask before and during a given play. Masks don't turn a character into a type as they do in Greek theatre or other masked drama - rather, they become one with the wearer, his 'companion' in the piece. The mask strives for some sort of universality - so it's the mask and not the bare face that is supposed to represent the more 'human' of the characters when its representing a dead person.

All this, from one exhibition?! Perhaps I'll stay a whole hour at the next one, too. But, it'll have to be pretty good.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Noh Notebook: Noh, Snow, Tokyo

Even though I'd already seen one performance of Okina at the Kita Noh Theatre, I decided it would be a good idea to go and see another one organised by a different guild. Well, it seemed like a good idea until I looked out of the window on the morning of the show, to a full-blown snowstorm. Later - wet, cold, late, and out of chocolate - I  arrived at the Kanze Noh Theatre after an hour's battle through Tokyo's first all-day snowstorm in 20 years. This play was going to have to be good.

In this theatre, latecomers (which this time included about a quarter of the audience who, like me, had to dig themselves out of snowdrifts to get there) always end up sitting not facing the front of the stage...

...but sitting beside the bridgeway, looking into stage right:

The view was so completely different that it felt like a different play entirely even though the performances varied only subtly. It was gratifying this time to be able to see the arms of Okina's three kotsuzumi players working, from the side:

The next play was Genjo, a story about two famous lute players (one alive, one dead): huge cast (for noh - maybe 20 people) but the actual lute only appeared at the very end. The pillar downstage right separated two of the central characters and made for interesting viewing:

I even had time to look up at the stage roof, decorated for new year and with its corners and layers all much easier to see under the theatre space's real roof, from where I was sitting.

Add to that a brilliant interlude where the Ai Kyogen comes on dressed up - and, unusually for this [in some people's opinion, lower] class of actor, masked - as 'a not-very-important god from a lesser shrine' to tell the story...

...and an utterly mesmerising solo shimai (solo dance in plain kimono done out of the context of the play it comes from to show off technique) of the thrilling final dance in one of my favourite plays, Ama (The Diver). All in all - 'good' and 'worth it' didn't quite cover it.

I skipped home - or tried to - only slipping over a couple of times on three-inch thick sludgy ice in a pair of trainers made for a summertime outing to the park.

Another fine noh day!