Noh as a method – “The Maids” by Ren’niku kōbō

I first heard of this work about three years ago when it was touring Europe. Our professor of Japanese theatre theory presented it as an example of a stage where the “roles” are flowing from one performer’s body to another, with one role not being confined to one body. I confess I was at a loss to imagine such a performance at that time and a great question mark would have probably still remained in my mind I hadn’t had the chance last year to actually see the work.

Renniku kōbō’s signature style is defined by the use of Noh acting methods in creating contemporary theatre. While the great majority of their works is based on original scripts by founder and director Okamoto  Akira  岡本章, they also approach other plays, such as it was the case of Oedipus, performed last year in March.

The process of staging Jean Genet’s “The Maids” has undergone several phases before the variant I was able to see last year in August at Za-Kōenji. The three characters in the play – the lady and the two maids – have been previously performed by a mixed male and female cast, but this time the cast consisted of five actresses. Nevertheless, the concept of having several performers share one role has remained unchanged.

At the core of Genet’s “The Maids” – Jochūtachi『女中たち』in Japanese – stand the emotional conflicts between master and servant, the mixture of adoration and hate towards the master – psychological realities that are depicted with no intention of beautification. However, this play is more than about the hierarchical relationships of Western society that were on the brink of collapsing during the first half of the past century. It depicts the very subtle and painful interdependence between master and servant, between the adored and the adoring. The lady knows the two maids hate her and she keeps stimulating their hate, as if feeding on it. Genet’s style tends to be real to the grotesque, for there is a culmination of repressed hate just waiting to get manifest, reaching for a most dramatic climax.

Ren'niku kobo "The Maids" (Za-Koenji, August 27-28, 2013)

Ren’niku kobo “The Maids” (Za-Koenji, August 27-28, 2013)

The three roles are played by five actresses – Yokota Keiko, Maki Michiko, Yoshimura Chihiro, Tomosada Kyōko and Muramoto Hiroko. At first they take on the roles in turns, but as the tension gets higher, the speed of each role being handed over from one performer to the other increases. This results in a stiff exchange of lines that reminds of an automat. Behind it stands the concept of “a play within a play”, for the actresses are mimicking the maids who are mimicking the lady. Indeed, there is no attempt of “identifying” with the role. The distance between the actresses and their roles is obvious all throughout the performance. In director Okamoto Akira’s words the intention was to question the “role” and to dismantle the individual identity behind a role in search for the multiple selves that lie in the depth of the actor’s psyche. It was an attempt to revive the part of the “chorus” of ancient Greek tragedy, the collective voice that is supposed at times to take part in the action and at other times to take a critical stance towards the developments on stage.

This kind of conceptual theatre depends heavily on the imagination of the spectators or, to be more precise, it would not be possible at all without the participation of the audience. Taking to account that one role can be played in turns by all the actresses on stage, the spectators have to notice every change in voice inflexion or bodily movement, so that they can keep hold of which character is talking at a certain moment. Furthermore, apart from the red dress confined to its chair in the background, there are no other props used. Any other objects are suggested by gestures or only mentioned in the dialog. This is another point where the imagination of the spectators is called to fill in the gaps. In this sense, we are dealing with a very concentrated form of theatre, one that instead of dispersing the tension towards the outside – by making the characters’ conflict visible through suggestive objects and aggressive behaviors, it actually keeps the tension oriented towards the inside until the very last moment. The whole tension of the play, although latent, gradually rises to such a degree that it can only end up in murder. The killing of the mistress by the two maids was suggested on stage by an act of strangulation. However, in that single moment it was obvious for the spectators in which body resided the role of the mistress, such as it was obvious that the role of each of the maids was shared by two bodies. It seemed as if the hate felt by each of the maids towards their mistress had needed more than one body to be expressed accurately.

One of the most interesting aspects of this work is its relationship to Noh. What is the key element that connects Genet’s world of maddening passions to the world of Noh? If we look at the most popular types of characters whose stories are at the center o Noh plays, we find either restless souls of the dead (in case of mugen nō  夢幻能 “dream noh”) or monogurui – “desperate” or “mad” people (in case of genzai nō  現在能 “present day noh”). In both cases we deal with characters whose selves are alienated – they do not belong to themselves anymore, so to speak. This fact is expressed effectively through the chant of jiutai 地謡 – the chorus in Noh, consisting of eight performers who sing the lines on behalf of the main character at certain moments. There is an obvious attempt of director Okamoto Akira to establish a fruitful exchange between the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy and the one of the jiutai in Noh.

As far as the expression itself is concerned, the deep, powerful voices and the strict control of bodily movements are also connected to Noh acting techniques. The stiff, tension-filled choreography mentioned earlier reminds one of kata 型 – the fixed sequences of gestures and movements, which form the base of Noh acting. Keeping the tension of the conflict oriented towards the inside results in the restrained expression so often associated with Noh.

With this work Ren’niku kōbō managed to present a very subtle form of theatre, involving the audience in a psychological play that kept them alert until the last moment. When the red dress spread on the chair in the background was replaced by a white one in the end, a feeling of relief spread through the audience. There is no redemption through murder, but a great load of hate had been certainly done away with. It is through meticulous concept, informed by explorations in the essence of theatre, that Ren’niku kōbō keeps pushing further the limits of dramatic expression.

The company’s upcoming project is the staging of a Noh play written by contemporary poet Naka Tarō 那珂太郎, entitled  Shikōtei  始皇帝 “Qin Shi Huang”. This stage will be a collaboration with nōgakushi Kanze Tetsunojō 観世銕之丞, himself a performer very open to expanding the possibilities of the art of Noh through experimental theatre. The performance will be hosted by the National Noh Theatre on March 20th.

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