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.

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