Review: Five Noh Plays


Entering Merton Chapel at this hour feels something like waking up in limbo. The cool silence of the uplighting and the scurrying of shadows across the walls create an antechamber into a world weighted equally between the ancient and the avant-garde. The staging is very simple, as is the costume, which forces you to feast your full attentions on the cast, who seem to emerge from the floor of the Gothic chapel like white pins or pillars of pure potentiality in the tapestry woven by the intricacies of the architecture and Satie’s music. The action begins as the score of Le Fils des Étoiles starts, and the feeling evoked from this combination can only be described as an ascension.


Over the course of the two plays that I witnessed, Suma Genji and Kagekiyo, I was incredibly impressed by the marriage of Satie’s preludes with Pound’s translation. Separately, both are rather haphazardly effective Orient-meets-Occident combinations: Pound’s translation of the Noh plays, forged from basic notes and inherent poetic understanding, open early Japanese theatre to a Western audience; whereas Satie’s Le Fils des Étoiles, composed for a play of the same title by Joséphin Péladin, is imbued with Oriental notes. The synaesthetic fusion of the two, coupled with the lighting that makes shadow puppets of the actors’ silhouettes, transforms the chapel into a dreamscape of fantastic proportions.


Eddie Smith’s reworking of the Satie’s original score is laudable. Although the score was originally written for a theatrical piece, there is no evidence to suggest that a performance in this context ever materialized. It seems that this exceptional piece was unfortunately relegated to the realm of the piano. Smith’s transposition of the music for the harp and flute has awe-inspiring consequences, and the placement of the musicians to the side of the stage gives the sound the quality of ‘tears like a thousand lines in a storm’, trickling from the high walls of the chapel. The music embroiders the casts’ garments, turning their plain white forms into shimmering silk brocades.


Shaun Chua gave a zealous performance embodied by strong physical forms and structures that could elevate him instantaneously from the worldly to the mythical. Not being familiar with the Noh genre, I didn’t immediately understand Ayesha Jhunjhunwala’s role as an intermediary-cum-conscience figure, but once that was clear, it worked very effectively. Given the emphasis on music and musicality in this production, I thought that the role of the chorus could have been exploited to a far more polyphonic end, but whatever minor misgivings that occasionally arose, the artistic vision of the team is both admirable and inspiring, and I would be very interested to see what they come up with next. You don’t need to be familiar with the Japanese Noh form or with Satie’s music to enjoy these plays, as it is in the combining of the two that the beauty resides.  


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