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
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