Yoshitune and the Thousand Cherry Trees

Takeda Izumo II, Miyoshi Shoraku and Namiki Senryu
Shochiku Kabuki
Sadler's Wells Theatre

Production photo

This visit by Shockiku's Grand Kabuki Company presents three scenes from a play that began as a Bunraku puppet play in 1747 and was adapted as a kabuki drama in the following year. It tells the story of twelfth-century general Yoshitune and his feud with his half-brother who had established himself as Shogun. Having been refused entry to the capital Kamakura he is forced to flee and finally commits suicide having first killed his wife and daughter.

These scenes however, concentrate on the story of his lover Shizuka whom he has to leave behind at one stage of his flight. To prevent her following he has her tied to a tree but leaves with her a very special drum. Here she is found by soldiers chasing Yoshitune but is rescued by Tadanobu, one of her lover's retainers, who stays with her on her travels until they eventually reach the place where Yoshitune is being sheltered by an ally. There we find there is another Tadanobu, for the first is, in fact, a shape-changing fox - as the audience already known from hints in make-up costume and performance. Fox Tadanobu is the child of two 1000-year old foxes whose skins have been used to make the drum and he is irresistibly drawn to it. Yoshitune presents the fox with the drum and he leaves skywards with it.

The dual Fox/Tadanobu role is a perfect showcase for the skills of Ichikawa Ebizo, a young actor, the eleventh to hold that name, whose family have been actors for more than 400 years. He gives a magnificent performance that does much more than demonstrate skill for, though observing the formal patterns of Kabuki, he imbues his role with real feeling that you can connect with even if you do not understand the codes of Kabuki.

I have seen Kabuki both in London over several decades and in Tokyo but I have never seen a programme that so marvellously illuminated the methods of the style for those used to a very different form of theatre. This fox role offers us a stylized make-up (and fleshings on the limbs that are the equivalent of limb make-up to indicate his animal nature); it gives us the formalised fight, done in almost slow motion; it gives us the costume changes assisted by an attendant whom the audience is supposed to disregard; it gives us a long sung narrative describing action that the characters simultaneously perform (a style taken over from Bunraku); it gives us great physical versatility and sudden appearances and transformations, it gives us some comic characters and, of course the female roles are all played by male onnagata, specialists in female roles.

For once, the in-the-ear commentary gives sufficient immediate translation of dialogue or song to know exactly what is going and explains points - such as the meaning of different kinds of drum and drum beat - that even my Japanese companion, who has enjoyed Kabuki since boyhood, did not know about.

In the past I have often found some contradiction in Kabuki being described as dance theatre. Seeing a season opening performance in Tokyo that showcased highlights from the coming repertoire I remember my disbelief at the acclaim a brief sequence of foot stamps received that apparently exemplified martial glory. Here we have such clarity of performance when warriors clash that its total lack of actual fighting becomes accepted. There must be a connection between the serious of poses linked by slow movement and the positions of various martial arts that have been modified into the positions of disciplines like Tai Chi. Here this is contrasted with the clown-like tumbling of the comic soldiers or monks that Tadanobu vanquishes.

I have seen Ebizo perform before (including an onnagata role) and seen how meticulously he has studied his roles but in this double characterisation he excels himself. His by no means the only fine performance, there is a delightful Shizuka from Nakamura Shibajaku and a strong Yoshitune from Otani Tomoemon and every role beautifully performed.

This set of scenes is the most enjoyable Kabuki performance I have witnessed. It was not only beautiful but made a connection as strong as the more naturalistic style of kyogen comedies. If there are any tickets left try to get hold of one.

Until 15th June 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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