Nowadays, Noh theatre is more often found in dusty books about world drama than on the stage, so it’s good to be able to report that playwright Benjamin Yeoh and directors Jonathan Munby and Michael Ashcroft have succeeded in making this archaic form both relevant and dynamic.
Yeoh sets Zeami’s ancient tale of Nakamitsu, retainer of Lord Mitsunaka, within a framing device involving a Japanese strip club. In the Noh play, Nakamitsu brings Kochiyo, the lazy son of his lord, back home from his monastery school. The boy is such a disappointment to his father that he orders Nakamitsu to kill him. But, when his own son, Bijiyo, offers to take Kochiyo’s place as the victim, Nakamitsu has to decide who to kill: his lord’s son or his own?
Yeoh’s translation, which won the 2006 Gate Theatre and Oberon Books translation award, retains a touch of the strangeness of the original, and yet is completely comprehensible and relevant. The central conflict between doing what you ought to do and what you want to do is timeless and thought-provoking.
On Mike Britton’s long, sharply lit strip of a traverse stage, the action unfolds at a cracking pace, with moments of reflection as Munby and Ashcroft slow things down to give us glimpses of the ceremonial traditions of ancient Japan. Hints of the original Noh theatre, which combined ritual chanting and music, are never allowed to hold up the storytelling.
The cast - Richard Clews (Nakamitsu), Daniel Williams (Mitsunaka), Peter Bankole (Kochiyo) and Matthew Burgess (Bijiyo) - are both suitably dignified and thoroughly convincing. Percussion by Ansuman Biswas is superb throughout. All in all, this production successfully crosses continents and centuries.