THEATRE / Off West End: Lifted masks

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The Independent Culture
Confused about Japanese theatre? Can't tell your shite from your waki? Sadler's Wells came to the rescue this week, offering a sort of bluffers' guide to Japanese drama. Shunkan, presented by the Japan Foundation, brought together three main strands of Japanese theatre in one evening, repeating the same classic story in the contrasting styles of Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku theatre. It was a fascinating, showcase, letting you compare interpretations (and for those who forgot their bluffers' guide, Noh is the underacted one, Kabuki is the overacted one and Bunraku is the one acted by puppets).

The ancient story concerns the monk Shunkan who is exiled on an island with two co-plotters after attempting a coup. The other two conspirators are pardoned, but he is left behind. The austere Noh version leaves it at that, while the Kabuki and Bunraku versions add a love interest.

In the Noh version, everything is pared down. On a bare stage, the protagonists tell us their plight, aided by a kneeling chorus. The actors scarcely move, their very stillness lending the piece the feel of a religious ritual.

The second version splits the story scene by scene between male Kabuki actors and Bunraku puppets and is far more upbeat. The Kabuki actors perform with grand flourishes, in contrast to the detail of the exquisitely manipulated Bunraku puppets. The show finishes with all three Shunkans (including the puppet) bidding farewell to the rescue boat - a pleasing finish to a skilfully performed experiment.

In 1993 Starving Artists were nominated for the Independent Theatre Award for Sleeping with You, a gay Californian love story that contained passages of such brave tenderness, performed with such passion by Mark Pinkosh, that you forgave the odd lapse into mawkishness.

Kissing Marianne (Drill Hall) contains similar elements, but in different proportion. Godfrey Hamilton's play reunites two brothers - the stay-at- home Joshua (Pinkosh) and the globe-trotting Will (Bruce Tegart) - and gradually excavates the true nature of their relationship. Again the play contains scenes of great tenderness and emotional honesty, but it is top-heavy with sentimental lines, and Pinkosh's febrile performance often becomes overbearing. A tough session in the cutting room would vastly improve both play and production.

'Kissing Marianne' is at the Drill Hall, WC1 (637 8270)

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