Hisashi Inoue
Ninagawa Company
Barbican Theatre

Production photo

Musashi Miyamoto was a real early seventeenth century samurai swordsman famous for the fighting techniques he developed and The Book of Five Rings which he wrote about military strategy. He is especially famous for the duel on the island of Funashima in which he defeated another great fighter Kojiro Sasaki in 1612. This contest is of legendary status in Japanese culture and forms the climax of the 1930's novel by Eiji Yoshikawa which Inoue used as the source for his play.

The play, premiered last year in Tokyo, is not however an adaptation of that book. Taking a clue from its ending, which has Kojiro still breathing and with help perhaps able to live, Inoue has imagined the rival swordsmen re-meeting, a new challenge and a second duel.

His play begins with the duel on Funashima for which Musashi (Tatsuya Fujiwara) arrived hours late having fashioned a long wooden sword from an oar where Kojiro (Ryo Katsuji), tense with waiting, had to face his opponent against the noonday sun. On an empty shore beneath a hot orange sun that turns blood red we see Kojiro defeated, to be followed by the sight of tall trees emerging from darkness that move around the stage as though the viewer is moving among them with brief glimpses of buildings as the next scene is assembled: the Buddhist temple Horenji in Kamakura where the swordsmen encounter each other.

The verandahs of the temple are reminiscent of a Noh theatre stage and one of the mixed group of people there on retreat is composing a Noh play. Among others there is a former dancer and the younger woman she has trained who perform a dance piece about the ghost of an octopus but this is a tongue-in-cheek look at great classical forms of performance and, when they and an odd job man ask the samurai for weaponry training so that they can exact revenge on those who have harmed their family's tradition, there is an hilarious sequence in which they form a conga-style line to what sounds like a tango and soundly thrash those they seek to punish - producing a severed arm with fingers that go on distractingly twitching for ages. It all seems to cock a snook at samurai sagas.

Behind all the comedy there is something very serious: a pacifist message that echoes the old Japanese proverb "he who seeks revenge should dig two graves," though plot- linked to an administrative need to control samurai swordsmen - the priest of the temple has orders from the Shogun to direct them towards the path of peace.

Which of the heroes will win in the rematch? Can the people in the temple prevent it from happening? There are unexpected twists to the plot before it reaches a conclusion in a production that looks beautiful with Tsukasa Nakagoshi's sets and Lily Komine's costumes and has a sound score of birdsong, wind and the traditional sounds of Kabuki mixed with western tunes in Akira Miyagawa's witty music.

As well as fine performances from the two young samurai, there is strong playing from Kohtaloh Yoshida as the government official Yagyu and Naomasa Musaka as the priest. Kayoko Shiraishi, though a considerable star in Japan, I have previously found too exaggerated a performer for my western taste but this time she won me over with her captivating portrayal of the aging dancer and the gentle send-up of her octopus ghost.

As usual with Ninagawa, this is a production in which every detail and every member of the company makes an important contribution from the lighting designer (Jiao Katsushiba) to the people responsible for making the trees bow before the wind, and it is one in which he has skilfully blended elements of traditional and contemporary theatre with delightful effect.

Until 8th May 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton