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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Tokyo theatres in August

Summer is the holiday season for theatres in Europe – a difficult time for theatre lovers, who are thus deprived of their favorite enjoyment for three long months. However it is also the time of performing arts festivals, which do a great job in filling the gap until September, when theatres resume their activities. With Festival d’Avignon in July and The Fringe going on right now until the end of August in Edinburgh, there is still a lot to see and to experience, although clustered in one corner of the continent or another.

In Japan there is no off season for theatres, so business is going on as usual, with hundreds of performances every week, leaving both artists and audiences no time to even dream of feeling bored 🙂 Regardless of their scale, the shows in summer tend to be exuberant, invigorating and full of joie de vivre, so you can rest assured you’ll be leaving the theatre in high spirits no matter where you happen to enter.

Here is a very small selection of August performances, which I would recommend heartily:

Unarguably the most awaited show of this summer in Tokyo is ABKAI ―えびかい―, starring kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizō and comprising two performances – Jayanagi『蛇柳』, a famous play in the kabuki repertoire, firstly performed by Edo period kabuki star Ichikawa Danjurō in 1763, and Hanasaka jiisan『花咲じいさん』, an original kabuki dramatization of a Japanese fairy-tale. Award-winning dramatist Miyazawa Akio has been entrusted with writing the script for the latter, while Miyamoto Amon, renowned for his staging of musicals, is responsible for its direction. With this trio of highly acclaimed artists, the performance promises to be a real success. “ABKAI” has already started on August 3rd and will continue until the 18th at Bunkamura Theater Cocoon in Shibuya.

At the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Theatre East, the theatre company mum & gypsy will perform their latest work “cocoon” from August 5th through 18th. Originally a manga by illustrator Kyō Machiko, “cocoon” depicts Okinawa during World War II. The mixture of real facts with fantasy in this work has been praised enthusiastically, leading to its dramatization under the supervision of young director Fujita Takahiro, himself an artist who has been gathering much attention recently.

Yaneura © Rinkogun

Yaneura © Rinkogun

Starting with August 30th through September 5th we will have the chance to see Rinkōgun’s famous work “The Attic” Yaneura『屋根裏』(directed by Sakate Yōji), which will be restaged at the company’s atelier Umegaoka Box. (Yes, you’ve got it right. The whole action unfolds inside that trapezoid box!). Rinkōgun will be touring Europe this year in September, by the way, with performances of “The Attic” in Ukraine and Italy.

The performances I personally look forward to seeing this month:

On the side of traditional performing arts there is a special summer event held on August 29th at the National Noh Theatre, consisting of three separates acts, each belonging to a different genre of comedy – kyōgen “Hanaori”, rakugo “Shinigami” and kōdan “Hachi no ki”.

Have a fabulous summer, everyone, wherever you happen to find yourselves, inside or outside the theatre 🙂

Delving into darkness to find the light – Ren’niku kōbō’s “Oedipus”

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.

Oedipus_renniku kobo

©宮内勝

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…

…岩を伝う水の音が耳のうちを流れる。凍りつくような闇の中に紺碧の夜空が広がる。星々をちりばめた夜空が広がる。ひたひたひた、ひたひたひたと、星空から音楽が滴り落ち、その滴りを浴びて体全体がきしみを立てる。ひたひたひた、ひたひたひたと、手足に闇が満ちてくる。膝が、足首が、少しずつ感覚を取り戻してくる。肘が、手首が、あるべき位置に戻ってくる。目蓋がくっきりと見開き、夜の闇が流れ込む。

…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:

星辰の歌が紺碧の空に満ち溢れる

わたしの心に満天の星空がひろがる…

遠い星辰の歌が、かそけき響きとなって

堆積した時間のゼリー状の膜を震わせ

記憶の層に侵入し、心の襞をゆすぶって

また、天空の果てへと消え去ってゆく…

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.