The 20th century literary critic Shklovsky considered the purpose of all art to be that of rendering things unfamiliar, strange and distant. Brecht thought this is necessary in theatre in order to make the audience critically aware of what is happening on stage. Unlike the dynamics of conventional entertainment – where individuals are encouraged to identify with the characters and the story – experiencing the unfamiliar and the “strange” through art prolongs the processes of perception, suspends judgement, and transforms individuals.
In this light, Japan’s ancient art of noh is a peculiar occasion of estrangement for Westerners ready to submit to its slow-paced movements, symbolical gestures and prescribed rhythms.
Oshima Noh Theatre of Hiroshima Prefecture and Theatre Nohgaku, based in Tokyo and New York, are currently collaborating on a tour visiting four European cities, offering a rare chance to experience this fascinating, rich and mysterious art form which includes poetry, music and dance.
The show visited Queen Elizabeth’s Purcell Room in London on the 2nd and 3rd December before moving on to Dublin, Oxford and Paris. The performance features the central scenes of classical warrior play Kiyotsune written by noh author Zeami in the 14th Century, as well as the world premiere of Pagoda, a contemporary noh piece written by Chinese playwright Jannette Cheong. The first is the story of general Kiyotsune who took his own life by jumping into the sea to avoid giving himself into the hands of the enemy. The show stages the encounter and dialogue between the ghost of Kiyotsune and his wife. Pagoda is an English language noh work focusing on themes of migration and mourning. As Theatre Nohgaku artistic director and Pagoda’s music composer Richard Emmert puts it, “it is a step in making noh an accessible art form for the English-speaking world”.
Traditional noh chant and dance developed from the Japanese language. Several attempts were made in the 20th century to create an English noh play. Pagoda has an English text and original noh style music, both written following strict noh rules. In the noh world every scenic element is protagonist: nothing is left to chance. Characters gracefully inhabit the minimalism of the setting, the stage creates a space of intimacy and the spectator sits still as if witnessing a very special and highly aesthetic ritual. The beauty of the costumes worn by the actors combines with the delicacy of the noh masks, the elegance of the gestures and the precision of the music. Characters come in and out of stage in silence: we follow their movements – incredulous – to the centre of the stage where their masks or their mask-like faces stare at a void above and beyond the audience. The latter watches them looking out at sea, counting boats, recollecting broken destinies. We travel through space and time together with these unearthly figures whose feet slide slowly onto the floor, whose arms seem immobile until we see them bursting out in a fast but composed final dance. Here speed seems suggested, rather than exposed, through sudden yet soft moves within the restricted space of the noh stage.
A sense of tranquillity is constantly evoked by the ever present pine tree image painted on the back wall: a symbol of longevity, virtue and steadfastness in Japanese culture.