THEATRE Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards Cottesloe, RNT, London

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The Independent Culture
Most of have heard of Takemitsu, but Chikamatsu (Japanese playwright, 1653-1725) remains a bit of a mystery man to all but those who populate the more rarefied echelons of Nipponese drama studies. No longer - at least, up to a point - for now the National has deposited him on the British theatre map with the alluringly entitled Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards, an 18th-century puppet drama performed by actors in a freely adapted version in richly packed verse by Peter Oswald.

The background to how this has come about is itself anecdotally interesting. Just last summer I was teaching a group of American graduates and Richard Eyre, artistic director of the National, came to talk to them. There was a nice woman on the course who had a quite alarming taste for things Japanese and, noticing Chikamatsu on the National's forthcoming schedule, she gave Eyre a light grilling.

It turns out that the wildly unlikely source of his interest in the subject is Peggy Ramsay, doyenne of theatrical agents and "Monstre Sacre" who, at the end of one of their lunches together, murmured something like: "Darling, do yourself a favour and catch up on Chikamatsu." If I'd been Eyre, I'd have replied, "Sorry, no can do, at the moment, ducky. You see, I'm up to my `neck' in pre-Assyrian nose-flute dramas." Instead, he went home and did some homework. So the ground must have been pretty well tilled by the time Peter Oswald came along with this project to plant in it.

Whatever else it may be - and that's sometimes hard to say - Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards is an admirably brave piece of programming and a great adventure and it would repay the attention of anyone who doesn't mind having their cultural horizons widened. An elaborate, philosophically nuanced and often very funny tale of love versus the state, of Samurai culture against the rather different ideals of monastic Buddhism, it's performed in John Crowley's imaginative Cottesloe production in a traverse setting of great Japanese formality.

A black dais, that can represent everything from the Samurai's counsel table to a pilgrim's boat, slides back and forth over boxed-in surfaces (the blue and gold of a pond; the raked gravel of a monastery's precinct, etc) that have a rock garden-like exactitude. At either end, there are luminous screens, one showing a neon-lit curve, the other a horizontal bar (Yin and Yang? Different paths to enlightenment?).

Having recently been hard at work in Robert Lepage's Hiroshima-centred Seven Streams of the River Ota, the National's Japanese percussions and wind instruments must be nearly worn out with use, but they do good service again here. That characteristically eerie flute sound draws its frost patterns on the air like the aural equivalent of a disturbed brain scan.

Peter Oswald has said that his motivation in going for a Japanese story was that it freed him from the Jacobean influences that restrict anyone who tries to write a verse drama in English. It's odd, though, how often characters and situations here recall Shakespeare. For example, Lord Morotaka, the prime mover of the evil in the play, is first cousin to both Malvolio and to Angelo, whom the admirable David Haig once memorably acted. An officious, repressive stickler for a grim morality, while seated atop a volcano of erotic desire, he's the warden of the maids of honour attached to Olwen Fouere's hypnotically extraterrestrial-seeming Empress.

When he enviously unearths a double case of love outside marriage, Morotaka's spite sunders the young romantic foursome and sets in chain a plot full of symmetrical asymmetries. There are supposed executions, comic mistakings, some delicious deadpan satire on Samurai vanity, and a poetic sense of the whole world as a Buddhist shrine. "Love must be allowed to bud; without it/ Life is a duty, beauty is a lie" declares the Empress. Taking the young couples through "a dream of death" and then back into each other's arms, the play is an affirmation of this principle. Things don't work out so well, though, for the obsessive Morotaka. Where Shakespeare can empathise with men like Malvolio and Angelo, Chikamatsu remains on the outside, judging this chamberlain and luring him to a decidedly sticky end.

Yes, it does need trimming and tightening. Yes the second half does drag. Yes, you do sometimes wonder if the play's themes wouldn't be expressed more eloquently with puppets. And yes, I will be going again.

Booking: 0171-928 2252