Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, Sadler's Wells, London
Electric Hotel, Goods Way, King's Cross, London
Swan Lake, Royal Albert Hall, London

The ancient Japanese art of kabuki is not easy to access, but richly repays the effort

Inscrutable. Impenetrable. Too wide a cultural gulf to bridge. That's a foreigner's natural first reaction to kabuki, a fiercely stylised form of theatre in which women's roles are taken by men, the language is 17th-century Japanese, and props are moved around by stage hands scuttling on their haunches.

Even Japanese audiences don't exactly find it a breeze. The text is declaimed in a slow, croaking whine, bearing about as much resemblance to modern speech as bear-paw ramen to Pot Noodle. Visually, too, the drama is heavily encoded. Unlike, say, a Shakespeare play, re-interpreted with each new production, classical kabuki is a 400-year-old fly in amber, an archaism, static and fixed.

Hats off, then, to Sadler's Wells and the promoter Askonas Holt, who, encouraged by a resurgence of popularity in Japan, have perceived that – with a little help from 21st-century gizmos – British audiences too might learn to love kabuki. Headsets, handed out free at the door, not only offer a running translation, but also a commentary on points of style, including the role of kakegoe, knowledgeable punters who shout encouragements to the actors at pivotal moments (Sadler's Wells has duly lined up some of these, and it certainly adds to the excitement). I remain baffled, though, as to why the music – played on stage by a kneeling orchestra – relies so heavily on the lute-like shamisen, an instrument that requires tuning every few seconds. The constant peg-twiddling seems all the more strange since, to Western ears, they're still off-key.

The narratives of kabuki plays are generally based on episodes from Japanese history, which sounds deadly until you realise that these epic events are merely a peg upon which to hang tales of the supernatural. Adapted from a puppet play from 1747, Yoshi-tsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees begins as Yoshitsune, a 12th-century general, is forced to flee into the countryside after a power struggle with the Shogun, leaving behind his mistress Shizuka (Shibajaku Nakamura, a remarkable onnagata or specialist in female roles). This soon turns into a tale of love and longing, involving a magic drum made of fox skins, the loyal Shizuka, and her master's retainer, played by Ebizo Ichikawa, the show's true star.

On the streets of Tokyo, this 32-year-old is an A-list celeb, feted by fashion designers and screamed at by girls. In kabuki terms, though, he's still on the nursery slopes, a junior member of an acting dynasty that stretches back to 1660. His family specialises in the arogato (wild) style, and the dual role as the retainer Tadanobu, and his doppelgänger, a shape-shifting fox, brilliantly showcases his qualities. The eloquent physicality is taken as read. The surprise is Ebizo's seemingly endless range of facial expressions, and his lithe assurance as a gymnast. At one point he vanishes through the floor, only to pop up two seconds later, re-costumed. Other stunts include taking a flight of steps in one leap, and running the length of a narrow handrail like Tom chasing Jerry. Almost as much fun are the acrobatics of the soldiers, whose crash-bang landings are wholly intended.

Graphically, the wow-factor is high, the sets a radiant mix of saturated colour and gilded pattern, framed with boughs of cherry blossom, the kimonos artworks in themselves. At two hours 40 minutes (just three scenes from a play that in full would have run all night) this is merely a taster of kabuki. Here's hoping that a second course from Tokyo's excellent Shochiku company is in preparation.

While the headsets are only an option at Sadler's Wells, they are essential to Electric Hotel, a site-specific piece inspired by the premise of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. With the audience watching from a vacant construction site, a cast of seven directed by David Rosenberg and Frauke Requardt act out troubled, idiosyncratic lives behind the glass walls of a specially constructed hotel. In one room a pregnant woman is rowing with her husband, while in another a transvestite tests the bedsprings, and on the landings maids vacuum carpets, and couriers deliver mysterious glowing parcels. Now and again, all the characters break into synchronised dance in their separate rooms. The pin-sharp binaural soundtrack spookily makes it seem as if the echoing footsteps, the ringing phone, a woman's shrieks, are happening inside your head. Ultimately, though, the drama is too inconsequential to warrant the discomfort of a blustery hour on a cold, hard seat after dark.

Its venue also defines the experience of Derek Deane's Swan Lake, making a sixth return to the Albert Hall to mark English National Ballet's 60th birthday. Spectacular it is, art it ain't. The schooling of the four dozen swans is immaculate, and the tessellated lakeside scenes are a picture (at least when the dry-ice machine isn't playing up), but even the finest principals need a megaphone to broadcast their duets. Subtlety is a casualty, alas.

Kabuki: (0844 412 4300) to 15 Jun; 'Electric Hotel' (same number) to 19 Jun; 'Swan Lake': (0845 401 5045) to 19 Jun

Next Week:

Our critic submits to a spot of World Cup fever with Brazil! Brazil!, a show with capoeira and street football

Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
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.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence