A Night At The Kabuki – Sadler’s Wells, London

Writer and Director: Hideki Noda

What if Romeo and Juliet survived? It is a question not unknown to dramatists, the current West End production of & Juliet and the RSC’s 2009 A Tender Thing being cases in point. Celebrated Japanese theatre-maker Hideki Noda’s response to the question is an immense piece of richly textured and sublimely executed theatre. Set to the original recordings of Queen’s A Night at the Opera, A Night At The Kabuki mashes up Shakespeare, Japanese kabuki, contemporary dance, breath-taking physical theatre, stunning costumes and set design, with perfectly realized humour. All in all, it is an indisputable dramatic achievement that demands to be seen.

It is 30 years on from that fateful five-day romance. There is a messenger waiting for Juliet, erstwhile Princess of the 12th century Minamoto family, whose mantra ‘suppress desire, relinquish fortune, discard name’ lies at the heart of the ruling family’s governing creed. He is carrying a love letter from Romeo, formerly prince of the Taira family, whose addiction to hedonism and wealth is poles apart from the austere Minamotos. The messenger has struggled for three decades with a question of conscience: should he bring the letter or not?

When Juliet opens the missive, the paper is blank. Buy why? Hang on to your hats because the messenger has a bigger story to tell, one that will drive an older and wiser pair of lovers, now reincarnated as guardian angels, back in time. Their shared goal is to rewrite the tragic events of their former lives and bring about the happy ending they were previously denied. But as we know from Shakespeare’s original, the lovers’ fate is driven by some basic character flaws. Attempting to rewrite history carries its own risks, and the dueling families are none too keen to see the starstruck lovers come back to life. The antagonist here is the insistent demand of a destiny that will not be denied. The lovers are soon to learn that sometimes it is just better to let sleeping dogs lie.

Kabuki traditions typically prioritize the sense of the supernatural over the need for narrative reality and consistency. It is no surprise then that A Night At The Kabuki has multiple interwoven themes. This is a story that drifts magically between locations and times, and in which the light and airy feel of the play’s early scenes soon turns decidedly more tragic.

Partly the piece is about the all-consuming power of love and how it can endure over decades of struggle. The bickering, fractious older incarnations of Romeo and Juliet provide a reassuringly benign glimpse of how the couple might end up. But it’s also about the relationship the characters have with the people they used to be. The two lovers are almost always accompanied in their endeavors by an onstage version of their former (or later) selves. Try as they might they, and we, can never escape the shadows of former lives and erstwhile loves. Memories can be unreliable, but fate has its own firm plans.

Noda, who is something of a legend amongst Japanese theatre-makers, has a love of British culture (particularly Shakespeare) and an extraordinary talent for finding and celebrating shared cultural reference points. There are nods in A Night At The Kabuki two, amongst other things and in no particular order, King Lear, Hamlet, The Tempest and even The Sound of Music. Elements of French farce get a look in. Even Noda’s glorious onstage comic turn as Juliet’s nurse Uba (adorned with traditional Kabuki onnagata make-up) owes something to British pantomime traditions.

In the hands of a lesser director, all this cultural mixing might be messy. What Noda offers instead is a seamless and thought-provoking celebration of the opportunities that cultural fusion offers for seeing the world in new ways. This theme carries forward into the archetypal conflict between the money-obsessed, capitalist Tairas and the religious zealotry of the Minamotos (whose militaristic supporters Noda mischievously labels ‘unnamed terrorists’). His message is that each culture contains within it the seeds of the other. With the waxing and waning of the fortunes of the competing clans, these seeds may bloom to ill-effect.

There is perhaps a little disingenuousness in the titling of the piece. A Night At The Kabuki hints that Queen’s A Night at the Opera somehow takes a role in carrying the story. In fact, while the music adds a level of complexity, it never carries the emotional heft of the narrative. Think of this more as an homage to Shakespeare with deftly chosen musical transitions, facilitated by Freddie Mercury. This is manifestly not a jukebox musical.

Runs until 24 September 2022

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