Review – Shochiku Kabuki’s “Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees” – Sadler’s Wells

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Here is the recipe for a perfect summer evening. Take a pleasant stroll from Angel station to Tenshi Sushi (61 Upper Street). Order some perfectly (yet unpretentiously) prepared Japanese food (I’m always incapable of saying no to the seaweed sushi) – try the cold soba noodles if it’s hot out, and maybe even some iced green tea. Then at about 7:10 stroll back past the station to Sadlers Wells, grab yourself a pair of headsets, and walk in the auditorium to see Shochiku Kabuki’s presentation of Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura and (avoiding reading the program to maximize your surprise – there is one interval and three acts, that is all you need to know) settle down for two and a half hours of theatrical perfection.

Not everyone is going to agree with me, but I don’t care; they are ignorant and uncultured. This show is utterly Japanese yet completely penetrable and enjoyable by anyone who loves the theater. The costumes are gorgeous, the sets simple but richly evocative, the music a fourth dimension illustrating what is happening on stage in symbolic ways not common to the Western stage (but all explained to you by the friendly voice in your ear). There are exciting action scenes (manly hero takes on ten at a time in slow motion! Enchanted warrior monks fight each other doing back flips!), theatrical dancing (which is mimed story telling with fans), and rockin’ special effects done in a generally low-tech way that I found evidence of absolute confidence in directorial technique. And there is a Roger Rabbit moment when a man is “squeezed so hard his teeth and eyes pop out of his head,” and then an “It’s behind you!” bit when you’ll have a hard time keeping yourself from pointing out the wild animal on stage to the woman who appears to be completely ignorant of its presence: God only knows the omniscient narrator fails to breathe a word, so someone ought to say something!

All of this is packaged up in a story which is utterly not like one from the English language (or even European) stage, but is still easy to follow. We start at the Inari Fox Shrine (foxes are like fairies in Japanese culture and associated with the Shinto religion, thus a shrine), where general/prince Yoshitsune (Otani Tomoemon) is saying goodbye to his lover Shizuka (Nakamura Shibajaku). He gives her a drum (a MacGuffin in every way) to console her for his absence, and before the scene is out entrusts her to his retainer Tadanobu (Ichikawa Ebizo, the real star of the show). The question then becomes – will Shizuka and Yoshitsune ever be reunited? And then – why is Tadanobu so obsessed with the drum? The ending left me almost laughing with surprise, as it was just as much of a shock as the finale of Don Giovanni (“That never happens at my dinner parties!”) or Hedda Gabler (“What? Did they even allow that in Norway in those days?”) – so many twists and turns I never expected!

But I enjoyed the ride all the way, with the possible exception of a bit of Shizuka’s dancing in the cherry-blossom covered Mount Yoshino scene. (There were a few minutes when I suddenly went, “Just what am I watching anyway? This isn’t Legally Blonde, and I don’t get the puns!” Then I stopped worrying and went back to enjoying myself and listening to the story she was telling.) The third act pulled out all of the stops for athleticism and stage work, and suddenly I understood why Ichikawa Ebizo is the star of this show – he must have made ten entrances in one act, making it from one side of the stage to another in about two minutes while completely changing his clothes – twice! This was in addition to his leaping three feet straight up onto stage and doing a dance on a railing. I just couldn’t imagine how his knees could hold up to it – it’s certainly not the kind of work you’d expect from Simon Russell Beale.

In short, this evening is a theatrical tour de force and one that we’re very lucky to have available on the London stage. I was seeing very limited seat availability for the run, but I can’t encourage you enough to make the effort it takes to see this show. Check hourly on the day of (at the Sadler’s Wells site) to see if there are returns, and then go in the theater and stand in line if you must. I have only managed to see Kabuki four times in my life and every time I have found it both gorgeous and moving – not to mention fantastic theater. This will be the highlight of the summer London season without a doubt; I am sure Punchdrunk’s Duchess of Malfi will look amateur by comparison – even if it does wind up being second best, it will be the moon to this show’s sun.

PS: Thank you to Ichikawa Ebizo, Nakamura Shibajaku, Otani Tomoemon and the entire team for breaking the run of utterly crap shows I’ve seen lately. I was beginning to think it was just impossible for me to enjoy a show anymore, and you proved that untrue.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, June 5th, 2010. The production continues daily through June 15th.)

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