Review: Kabuki in Fuji Musume /Kasane at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 31 May - 11 June
Reviewed by Emma Johnson - Friday 2 June 2006

Kabuki superstar Ebizo Ichikawa XI makes his UK debut at Sadler’s Wells this week. A descendent of the most famous Kabuki dynasty which dates back to the seventeenth century, Ebizo is at the age of 28 already renowned in Japan. This performance consists of two works, giving him the opportunity to showcase his talent for both male and female roles.

The first work Fuji Musume (The Wisteria Maiden) presents Ebizo in a portrayal of love, jealousy and betrayal. The maiden performs centre stage accompanied by a row of traditional musicians on either side of the stage with an elaborate backdrop of drooping branches of purple wisteria. The stark white makeup eliminates any facial expression and instead the emotion of the piece is communicated with a precise tilt of the head, lowering of the eyes and the softness and fluidity of a hand gesture.

An English audio translation interprets the words of the song, taking the audience on a journey of love and betrayal punctuated by the shuffling and stamping of the maidens feet. Costume and prop become interchangeable with the wide sleeve of a kimono transformed into a glass of sake, a screen to peer around and in the final scene a wisteria branch hanging forlornly from the arm of the maiden as she mourns her lost love.

The second work Kasane has a darker and more energetic feel to it. A much stronger narrative is used through song, speech, mime and dance to tell a murderous story of two lovers. For this the audience must rely more heavily on the audio accompaniment for translation. Two characters are present on stage. Ebizo is Yeoman, a young samurai being pursued by his lover Kazan, played by Kamejiro Ichikawa. The set is a bridge crossing a river, the beating of a drum offstage symbolising the running water.

Yeoman has left a suicide note for his lover and after she catches up with him at the bridge she tells him of her love and of their unborn child through a series of stylised gestures, mime and song.

In a cruel twist of fate – and the appearance of a skull and sickle in the river – we learn that some years earlier Yeoman murdered a man who turns out to have been Kasane’s father. A battle scene involving Yeoman and the police follows, a combination of frantic movement and static poses some of which is reminiscent of a scene from the film The House of Flying Daggers.

The final scene is the illuminated hand of the murdered Kasane possessed by the ghost of her father calling Yeoman back as he tries to flee the scene. Yeoman violently tries to resist, his body shuddering and jerking, limbs flailing wildly.

At times this is a visual spectacle of colour, movement and dance, at other times a static commentary being delivered to the audience in voice. The soundscape is provided by a mixture of traditional instruments and song. Although not strictly a dance performance the physically element of Kabuki is equally important as the theatrical and musical components, the bu in kabuki meaning dance. However you define this style, the performance delivered by Ebizo Ichikawa XI and Kamejiro Ichikawa provides a window through which to view an era in Japan’s history.

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