Mishima Double Bill, Barbican, London

A night of fatal love and despair
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The Independent Culture

There can't be many evenings in the theatre that have ended with the sound of the author's voice recorded shortly before he committed an act of ritual self-disembowelment. That's the startling conclusion, though, to this superb double-bill of modern Noh plays by Yukio Mishima.

His radical reworkings of these 14th-century dramas were an attempt to conjoin contemporary Western civilisation and the Japanese classical world. They are thus ideal material for the great director Yukio Ninagawa, whose stock-in-trade is the sensuous fusion of Eastern and Western modes.

Brought now to the Barbican as part of BITE, this production was mounted in Japan in 2000 to mark the 30th anniversary of Mishima's suicide in protest at the materialistic decadence of his country. It begins with Sotoba Komachi, an updating to a contemporary park of the legend of Ono no Komachi, a famous beauty who, in her heyday, once made a besotted general visit her 100 times in the hope of acceptance. Now a bent-backed 99-year-old, she is one of those ghosts who are condemned to relive their wrongdoings but cannot expiate them. Here it is that, if by some miracle, a man were to perceive this crone as beautiful, for him to tell her so would doom him to die. Every century, she notches up another miracle and another victim.

Ninagawa's staging suffuses the story with an aching beauty which borders on the kitsch. In the dark misty-blue park, the trees are dense with orange-red cam-ellias that drop steadily to the ground, while the romantic plaintiveness of mood is underscored by a vocal version of Fauré's Pavane. Komachi is played by the great male actor, Haruhiko Jo, while Eiji Yokota brings a piercing charisma to the young poet she succeeds in entrancing.

When the pair are transported back to the ball where she rejected the General, Jo movingly suggests that the flirtatious spirit of a lovely girl has reanimated this old derelict. He also graphically communicates the agony of inner conflict in this woman as she rips open her clothes to expose her withered ugliness, and struggles to ward off the fatal love for which she also yearns. Then, with a brilliant sardonic jolt, we return from this out-of-time world to the noisy present day, where the poet's corpse is principally a problem for the park-keeper.

The second piece, Yoroboshi, begins as a custody hearing over a beautiful young man, Toshinori (a transfixingly weird Tatsuya Fujiwara) who lost his sight and (it seemed) his parents in an air raid in the Second World War. At first, the mood is one of black comedy as this youth, still cut off from his feelings by that early trauma, ridicules both his real and adoptive parents and makes them agree with outrageous propositions in their effort to lay claim to him. But then, when alone with the magistrate (Keiko Takahashi) and an inferno sunset bleeds in through the courtroom windows, he gives hysterical vent to a vision of the end of the world and of the air raid that cost him his sight. One perspective on post-nuclear Japan gives way, in a coup de théâtre, to another, as the piece concludes with a recorded extract from Mishima's terminal balcony speech exhorting his defence force to rise against the corrupt materialistic government. A disturbing end to a potent evening.

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To 30 June (020-7638 8891)

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