There's no business like 'Noh' business

The theatre of ancient Japan is too extreme for most Japanese, so why can't Edinburgh's audiences get enough of it?

As director of Britain's only centre for Noh drama, at Royal Holloway, University of London, Dr Plowright recognises that Noh is so sparse, distilled and strange that many can't bear it as a means of expression. "In our age everything has to be explicit and experiences immediate, but for people who can be bothered to make the time and commitment, Noh makes a deep impact." This week at the Edinburgh Festival audiences have a rare opportunity to compare both the original Sumidagawa play, presented by the Association for Japanese Noh Plays, and the Festival's own production of Benjamin Britten's version, the church parable, Curlew River.

The tightly reined formality of Noh in Juro Motomasa's Sumidagawa dates back to the 15th century, when the aristocratic Samurai warrior-class prohibited the free expression of emotion. The tale describes a madwoman (this central role is always played by a man) desperately seeking her lost son. Her search takes her on a river-crossing, sees her mocked by a ferryman and pitied by a traveller, until she eventually arrives at a willow-covered shrine. Tremendously dignified, she glides daintily on from behind a brightly striped curtain - in this production a magnificently corpulent robed figure - betraying no vulgar indication of insanity, her grief-induced madness indicated only by the bamboo shoot she clutches. Against a backcloth of a pine tree, a slightly tilted mask (scarcely concealing a stubbly jowl), a carefully choreographed movement, and a graceful stance speak louder than words.

Benjamin Britten created the first of his three rather exotic church parables, Curlew River, in 1964, for performance in Orford Church, after being moved and impressed by Noh theatre in Japan. He and his librettist William Plomer elaborated freely on the basic ingredients of Noh presentation, however, giving it a Christian slant. The masked, all-male company becomes a group of monks who cast off their ecclesiastical habits to enact the ritualistic tale which here celebrates God's grace. And in giving a happier ending, the madwoman experiences that much-used concept in 21st-century counselling, closure. Britten and Plomer also uprooted the tale to the English fenlands and framed the action with an ancient plainsong chant.

Last summer, Graham Vick's production of Curlew River for the BBC Proms involved a hefty "police presence" in the Albert Hall with uniformed extras assisting in a "reconstruction". Olivier Py, directing it for Edinburgh, has also moved away from Britten's sacred setting, though in a less conceptual way. Despite the fact that Britten's score was tailored to church acoustics he prefers his theatre setting.

"The theatre is my church," he says somewhat loftily, "so we are actors playing monks reconstructing a mystery play. I don't know much about Japanese culture or the Noh tradition and although my interpretation is also extremely graphic, the choreography is more Pina Bausch's Wuppertal than Tokyo."

And the fenland? Py shudders at any possibility of decking the stage with "pretend nature," the thought of plastic leaves appaling him. "We create the river and water reeds through lighting, and that too is how we show river reeds and marshes."

As in the Noh Sumidagawa, musical instruments play a crucial dramatic role in Curlew River. The costumed chamber ensemble, including a range of evocative percussion, is integrated into the drama, positioned by Py close at hand above the all-male singing actors. Py is adamant that, despite being performed by men, the piece shouldn't come across as a camp work.

The young British tenor Toby Spence plays the madwoman. He has learnt from Py, he says, how to get inside the skin of a woman. When not directing, Py has another life as a chanteuse, a comic-tragic creation called Miss Knife, yet to make her Edinburgh debut. Spence was mesmerised when he caught Py's one-man/woman show in Paris. On the question of just how different a madwoman is from a madman, some of the same mannerisms are used.

Curlew River has the advantage over Sumidagawa of being in a language that the audience understands. And many of the gestures in both play and church parable, though subtle, are strangely familiar. When the madwoman raises her hand to her eyes, for instance, it is a simple and instantly recognisable gesture of grief. There are no histrionics. Noh actors treat their bodies like string puppets, letting their hearts control the gestures, explains Plowright. Even if you don't understand the words in Sumidagawa, or the musical language in Curlew River, you should still feel the power.

'Curlew River', Royal Lyceum, Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 473 2000) to tomorrow, 8pm

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?