Shochiku Grand Kabuki - Chikamatsu-za - Sadler's Wells

Kabuki was a theatre of feudal Japan that incorporates dance and drama with musical accompaniments on and off stage. It is a theatre for common people with only male actors who are called "onnagata". The drama usually reflects the real life of common people of Edo-perio Tokyo 1603-1868. Some plays are set in the legendary historic past; they are colourful and acted in an exaggerated and pompous style. The first original text dates from 1603 and took place with groups of female entertainers but they were banned from stage by Shogun's military government in 1629 because of the moral reasons of prostitution. Also, the Kabuki actresses were so popular that they created a public problem. Thus they started to perform with male actors only. The Kabuki actors also played the female characters, becoming specialised in the performance of these roles.

By 1868 the onnagata had become so refined and stylised that real women would have appeared too natural on the Kabuki stage. Another point of this particular art is that it is hereditary and the actors are generally referred to by their forenames in the Japanese surname-forename word order. The children of Kabuki actors are given stage-names and then proceed through names of increasingly high rank as their skill and experience develops. It is hereditary from father to son and on to the rest of the family. It is quite different culture, but amazing. They devote their lives to the portrayal of Kabuki. Usually Kabuki actors reach their full artistic maturity in their forties. Another extremely important role in Kabuki is dance and all Kabuki actors are dancers, skilled in dance-dramas.

The interesting thing about this experience for me was the way it appeared to have been put on for the benefit of tourists. I was fascinated but not emotionally involved. I was trying to understand the translation with the help of the earphone guide but not everything was completely translated. The stage looked incredibly Japanese - the music and the characters - but what really got me were the strange sounds and the way they crashed their feet on stage, stamping on special woods, when they wanted to emphasise a point in the drama. (If you think the Latin culture is dramatic, you haven't seen Japanese, yet!!)Occasionally members of the audience appeared in with calls know as "kakegoe". At first I did not understand this seemingly strange behaviour and was very curious but I then realised it was all part of the play and is a form of applause and appreciation and adds to the atmosphere of a Kabuki performance. The programme reads, "The calls are of either the actor's yago or acting house name, or his generation numbers. In the case of the star of today's performance, Nakamura Ganjiro III, his yago is 'Narikoma-ya' and his generation number is 'san-dai-me'". You have to be Japanese to understand that and to follow those names - it's all is mystery to me!They have a name at the beginning of their career but as their career progresses and/or their father dies they then can take the father's name and add roman numbers to it. This is the case of Nakanura Ganjiro III, who came to London with his most famous theatre company Shochiki Gran Kabuki, which he found twenty years ago. Also known as Chikamatsu-za, Ganjiro is not only principal actor but also the Artistic Director of the company that performs the original versions from the works of Chikamatsu Monzaemont (1653-1725), one of the great playwrights in Japanese theatre. Monzaemont to the Japanese is the equivalent of what Shakespeare is for the English theatre. The company specialises in the work of this great playwright. Ganjiro has been playing the role of the heroine in Sonezaki Shinju for nearly 50 years.

The celebration is also about Japanese theatrical art - 400 years of Gran Kabuki. Ganjiro is known in cultural Japan - being the great Kabuki actor he is - as a "Living National Treasure" - an award, something like the OBE that he was given in 1996. (In England we use a similar term - National Treasure - for someone who is greatly loved, for instance Queen Mother, with respect is affectedly known as a National Treasure. )He received this honour because he is known as Japan's most illustrious onnagata or female impersonator. Gosh, I am flabbergasted. (As the late, great Frankie Howard, used to say "my flabber is gasted". )In fact Mark Rylance, director of Shakespeare's Globe, says "Kabuki is for me the most subtle and engrossing theatrical tradition of the world, and Ganjiro a master and a living treasure. I would fly to Japan just to see Kabuki. "I insist it is all a mysterious, curious theatrical experience for me and the lovely images were fascinating.

Another interesting point about this Company is that Laurence Oliver met Ganjiro and his wife when they travelled to England to see Oliver's performance in The Merchant of Venice. They discussed how acting keeps the classical traditions alive on stage, and Oliver made Ganjiro promise to devote his life to reviving Chikamatsu-za on the Japanese stage. AH!!!!

It was the opportunity of a lifetime for me to see this legendary example of Kabuki's onnagata, this female role actor tradition with Nakamura Ganjiro III (b. 1931 in Kyoto) and his two sons. His grandfather and father were famous Osaka actors and their lineage go back to Nakamura Kanjaki III (1841-81). His two sons, Nakamura Kanjaki V and Nakamura Senjaki III are performing with him in London. This is what we call a dynastic cast. They brought to the Saddler's Wells Theatre the Love Suicides at Sonezaki (a very Japanese title that says everything so you don't need to understand a word to follow the plot). Ganjiro revived the role of Ohatsu, a role he first played 50 years ago with his father. It's been nearly 1000 times that he has performed the role and now his sons perform it too. (The Redgrave "dynasty" have nothing on this clan!!)

I read in the programme that Ganjiro "has recently been granted permission to take the name Sakata Tojuro IV in the year 2005. This will link Ganjiro directly back to Chikamatsu and his timeline. (Even if I dedicated the rest of my life to Kabuki, I will never really understand or manage to follow all the names or numbers.)

During the 17th and 18th century, Chikamatsu wrote over 100 plays for the popular stages of Bunraku puppet theatre and Kabuki. His father was a samurai in a relatively high level family, but his father resigned and they moved to Kyoto. The plays are usually about the ordinary merchants and courtesans of Kyoto and Osaka. This style is different from the style of Tokyo (Edo) Kabuki, the focus being on the actor himself and his personality, his body, voice movement, and limbs; sensuality, eroticism and passion are essential for an actor to be successful in Kabuki.

From the programme "Bunraku developed out of the epic storytelling tradition in which heroic tales of old were refashioned for the contemporary stage. Bunraku plays almost always have tragedy at their core. Kabuki originates in dance and has always been interesting in portraying and parodying contemporary life. It tends to steer clear of tragedy. In writing for both genres Chikamatsu gradually punished Kabuki to have more sophisticated and serious plots, and at the same time brought the contemporaneous into Banraki tradition. Love Suicides at Sonezaki, first performed in Osaka in 1703, was the first of the interaction between Kabuki's realism and contemporary focus, and Bunraku's narrative and tragic vision."

The plays in Kabuki Theatre are heterosexual passion but Kabuki has been part of the gay scene since it began. In the 17-century boys playing girls were banned from the stage because they were using performance for prostitution. And it was also quite common for an onnagata actor to wear female clothing in the street. But the legendary Ganjiro says, "There are 2 types of onnagata: one who turns straight back into man when he is offstage; and the other who keeps up the feminine side in daily life. That was true when I was young, and it's true today. Some of the audience prefers the openly gay onnagata, and I don't know which is better. But for me I'm already on straightforward technique that I've perfected to create the image of woman on stage. It's art, not life."

Another incredible thing in this theatre is something in dance and song that appears to be a sort of opera which they speak in a sing-song patois, sometimes with an articulated wail, sometimes a seductive murmur. There is a vast amount of people involved behind the scenes- five dressers for the kimono changes and the wig-master. (The collar of the kimono traditionally stands away from the back of the neck as that part of the neck is said to be sexiest part as far as the Japanese are concerned. )There are fifty actors and musicians. The white facial masks that are painted on take literally hours to apply.

In Sonezaki Shinju (1703), the most beautiful forest of Sonezaki, the lover seeks the right place to commit suicide. She is a prostitute and cannot marry, so they hurry through the dark forest looking for a suitable place to die, as a suicide pact. Then Tokebei stabs Ohatsu and afterwards kills himself. It is all very poetic and they sound beautiful in their torment. This is a drama of larger-then-life characters; a story of love, hate, suicide and murder.

Usually when I go to Sadler's Wells, I have their lovely sandwiches before the performance but with Japanese festivities they have superb Japanese food and drinks. I had sushi; I really enjoyed my dinner. They even had on sale arts and crafts and lovely ceramics from Japan.

A sad point about the onnagate for this year (2001) is that two of their major actors have died. Ichimura Uzaemon XVII was 84 years old. His real name was Bando Mamoru. He was born into a celebrated family of Kabuki actors and debuted at the age of five, at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo. He changed his name in 1955, becoming the 17th actor to hold that illustrious forename. This is the longest-established line of actors - the Ichikana Dajuro and which can be traced back 12 generations. They were originally theatre-managers of the old Ichimura theatres. The last one was destroyed by fire in 1932. Together with the Nakamaura-za and Moritaza they were the three greatest Kabuki theatres of Edo, the name of Tokyo before the collapse of the Shogunate Government. They were famous for their leading characters, huge costumes, fantastic wigs and broad stripes of red make-up - extraordinary and extravagant. His role preserved the Ichikana line of actors and Uzaemon was very popular. His face was painted with mementoes in his famous role of Oshimodoshi (devil Slayer). His voice had a nasal quality, and of course he was a Living National Treasure since 1990. It will be left to his three sons to continue the theatrical traditions.

Nakamura Utaemon VI, also passed away this year. He was made a Living National Treasure by the Japanese Government in 1968. He also received many other honours and was quite an exceptional talent. Although he was a small man, he possessed great elegance and grace and used his delicate hands to great expressive and dramatic effect. He walked with a limp but used his to his advantage and the limp became more like an elegant feminine gait. He was especially famous for his role as Hanko from The Maid of Dojoji Temple, a Japanese dance where a serpent transformed into maiden returns to the temple consumed with hatred for the great bell, which hangs in the grounds. He was great, he performed before Queen Elizabeth and Princess Grace of Monaco and during his tour of America in 1960 Greta Garbo expressed a desire to see him in his dressing room. He denied her access saying he was old and really not beautiful at all. "And anyway," he said, "I am all sweaty". Garbo replied, "But I want to see his sweat". He eventually came out in full make-up and costume. After the performance Garbo said that it was the most wonderful theatrical occasion she had ever experienced. I do agree with Garbo and I am pleased that we have something in common. The performance was wonderful but I was puzzled (I am still puzzled!!) with this alluring form of theatre, a feast of visual splendour and artistry!!

Verinha Ottoni.


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