In early March this year we had the chance to see the latest work of theatre company Ren’niku kōbō 錬肉工房,「オイディプス」Oedipus, performed at Ueno Storehouse.
In its over 40 years of activity, Ren’niku kōbō has developed an original performance style, combining Nō acting techniques and contemporary theatre. The founder of the company, actor and director Okamoto Akira 岡本章, has found inspiration not in the themes and stories in Nō, but in the performing style itself, in which he saw an unexpected actuality and depth of meaning. Ever since its founding in 1971, Ren’niku kōbō has been functioning as a laboratory of theatrical experiments, exploring the possibilities of applying Nō acting techniques in contemporary theatre.
Some of the works for which Ren’niku kōbō is known are Mizu no koe “The Voice of Water” (1991), in which the background music consisted of drops of water falling from an icicle through wood, metal and stones, MU (1998), which hosted the performance of butō dancer Ohno Kazuo, or the performance of Heiner Müller’s play Hamlet Machine (1998) – where the Nō mask was exploited to its limits when it was taken off by the actor on stage. From the recent ones we could mention the performance of Jean Genet’s “The Maids”, which won high acclaim last year in Europe, or Haru to shura “Spring and the Warrior” (2012), based on the original text by Miyazawa Kenji.
After “The Bacchae” (2009), Oedipus is the second challenge in a series taking on ancient Greek tragedy. Well aware that bringing new life into Sophocles’ tragedy is not an easy task, director Okamoto Akira gathered a group of actors with various backgrounds: Nō performers Uzawa Hisa and Sakurama Kinki, actors Fueda Uichirō, Kitabatake Asami (Ren’niku kōbō) and string-puppet masters Tanaka Jun and Shioda Yuki (former members of Yūki-za).
In order to bridge the gap between ancient Greek tragedy and our present day on the one hand, and the one between Nō and contemporary theatre on the other hand, the text of Sophocles’ “King Oedipus” was adapted and rearranged by poet Takayanagi Makoto. In its new form, the tragedy borrows the setting of mugen-nō (dream Nō), as the dead – Oedipus, queen Iocaste and all the ones involved in the story – wake up from the darkness of eternal sleep and slowly begin to recollect their memories of the past.
The sound of dripping water is what brings them back to life. And it is through these sounds that the dead learn to speak again…
“…the sound of water running down the cliffs flows into our ears. Into the frozen darkness a deep blue night is spreading. A night sky sprinkled with stars is spreading. Drip, drip, music is dripping from the sky full of stars and under those drops our bodies begin to squeal. Drip, drip, darkness flows into our limbs. The knees, the ankles recover their senses little by little. The elbows, the wrists, return where they belong. The eyelids open wide and the darkness of the night rushes in.”
Sound is the incentive that puts everything in motion, that is why particular attention is given to voicing onomatopoeia (“words with a body”, how Okamoto calls them) and bursting sounds (破裂音 haretsu-on), which associate with coming to life.
The story slowly takes shape, as the bodies of the actors begin to enact the characters’ memories. This performance focuses on the last part of the tragedy, when Oedipus finds out the truth about his birth, about killing his own father and marrying the very woman who gave him birth.
The roles, beginning with Oedipus and Iocaste, are actually shared between all the actors. A role does not stick to the body of one actor, but seems to flow from one performer to another, from the individual to the chorus. This flexibility of the role has its origins in Nō, where the main performer’s lines are taken over by the chorus (地謡 jiutai) in the scenes where the dance is the highlight. Through this technique, tradition seems to flow naturally into present day theatre, suggesting new ways of dealing with a role.
With the episodes rapidly unfolding and the tension rising to a critical point, the main role moves from the body of the actors to a puppet body. It is in this shape that Oedipus decides to punish himself by piercing his eyes with Iocaste’s golden hairpin. The use of the string puppet was a brilliant solution to enacting this gruesome scene by means of an actor’s body, which would have ruined the elegant balance sought by the performance. Moreover, it reminded me of the old ritual of destroying puppets which have taken over through a magic spell the curses, the illness or the sins that torment their owner.
After Oedipus’ sacrifice, the perspective moves slowly back to the realm of the dead, and from there to the stars:
“The song of celestial bodies fills the deep blue sky
in my heart a heaven full of stars is spreading…
The song of celestial bodies from faraway, turning into a dim echo,
is shaking the jelly-like membrane of sedimented time,
rushes into the layer of memories, shakes the folds of the heart,
and disappears again into the bottom of the universe…”
The voices of the dead become diffused and their song melts in the end into the sound of stars, returning into cosmos. The souls of the dead are appeased and it is with peace of mind that they become one with the universe. The sin has been expiated and order seems to be restored.
The serenity of this ending made me think of catharsis – the purgation of the audience’s emotions, an effect that tragedy is supposed to have according to Aristoteles’ Poetics. Whether intended or not, by projecting Oedipus’ story onto the image of the cosmos and by synchronizing it to the dynamics of the universe through a keenly polished acting technique, the effect that this ending has upon the audience reminded one of that once much sought after catharsis. In any case, it was a welcome corollary to the effort of aligning a contemporary performance of “King Oedipus” to the spirit of ancient tragedy. Just like after a Nō play, the images and the voices keep lingering for a long while and you cannot help but asking yourself whether it wasn’t just a dream after all.