Posts Tagged ‘Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees’

Webcowgirl’s Best of London Theater 2010

January 1, 2011

Wow, what a year it has been. After resolving to see less shows in 2010, I wound up seeing more – 143 total versus last year’s 116. What was I thinking? Actually, this year I really upped the number of dance performances I saw (helped, as ever, by Sadler’s Wells’ fine programming), and though, at the end 2009’s 116 shows I was feeling grumpy and ill-treated, 2010’s cornucopia left me feeling exhilarated about all the fun to be had in London, even when you’re on a budget. The dance helped; it also means that my numbers of “shows seen” misses many of the shows my my more prolific show-seeing friends have attended. On the other had, I have more people to see shows with now, and I thought it was a year well wasted, so that’s what counts, right? Anyway, my list is based on what I saw, and not what I should have seen or what all is out there. Of all of the shows I went to, I paid for all but three of them, so there are limits to what I could manage. (Note: I’m waiting for my free tickets to The Children’s Hour as there is no way I can afford decent seat to this show.)

Best play performed entirely in a foreign language: this was almost Shun-Kin, a truly spectacular work of theater in the pared-down (Empty Space) vein I enjoy so much. But in fact, I walked out of the door of Sadler’s Wells babbling and giddy after seeing Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees. I mean, come on, fox spirits and slow-motion sword fights! I was so glad that whoever ponied up the money to bring this production here from Japan (the Japan Foundation?) did so; I felt extremely lucky to get to see it. Kabuki rocks!

Most magical theatrical production of the year: When I go to a show, I pray a little prayer (just like Man in Chair) that it will take me away – make me forget I’m in a theater, let me overlook plot holes or cheap sets, just make the magic happen. This is what I hope for and it really only rarely happens. Sasha Regan of the Union Theatre must take baths in the stuff, though, because her threadbare rendition of dusty old Gilbert and Sullivan staple Iolanthe won me over all of five minutes into the show. And this, mind you, was with me sat behind an iron pillar. Take that, National Theater and your wastefully overproduced Men Shall Weep. Less really is so very much more.

Best play of the year: nominees are 11 and 12, London Assurance, All My Sons, One on One Festival, Shunkin. While London Assurance had the advantage of both a top-notch cast and a hysterical script (and was so good I saw it twice, the only show I did this for all year), and would deserve the best “play” of the year, the winner for this is the Battersea Art’s Center’s One on One festival, which was a game-changer for me, a theatrical experience I’ve been talking about ever since. Thank you to all of the people who worked so hard to make this event come together; next year I will try to come as many times as possible – if it happens again.

Most “so close and yet so far” play of the year: an hour into Earthquakes in London, I thought I was seeing the most original theater likely to hit the London stage in 2010. Two hours in, my ass had gone numb, and yet we were barely past the halfway mark. At some point between these two moments I realized I’d just been locked in a room to listen to a three hour long art school lecture on climate change, complete with dancing nannies, bad science fiction, and a fanatical devotion to the pope. Well, the last one wasn’t there, but you know what I mean, and God knows the show had no concept of a sense of humor about its topic. Mike Bartlett proved himself still a most competent playwright later in the year with Contractions, but this show had a lot to answer for, not the least of which was leaving a third of the audience on their feet for way, way too long. Of course, this wouldn’t have mattered nearly enough if it hadn’t also been preachy and dull. Please save me from this kind of self-indulgent, self-righteous clap-trap in the future: and please, let’s get the outstanding production values going for a more worthy show.

Best dance of the year: nominees are Maria Pagés and Company (part of the 2010 Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Festival), the Bolshoi’s Giselle, Bolshoi’s “Russian Seasons” mixed bill (Russian Seasons, Petrushka, Paquita pas de deux, not written up as I was gorging on dance and had no free time), Pointes of View (Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells, also didn’t write this show up), and the Royal Ballet’s October Mixed Rep (La Valse / Invitus Invitam / Winter Dreams / Theme and Variations). This is a hard one because I saw so much great dance this year. Natalia Osipova totally sold me on the Bolshoi and made me willing to play the pauper for the rest of August and September (summer holiday? what summer holiday?) so that I could see her dance as often as possible. Nearly every mixed bill had one weak point, but despite the loathing I felt for “Winter Dreams,” the Royal Ballet’s mixed bill for fall 2010 was so strong I wanted to get right back in line and have another ride. This was impressive given that I’d just seen about five shows by New York City Ballet and found myself yawning. The Bolshoi brought the most exciting program of dance to London that was available this year, but on this one night the Royal Ballet showed its dedication to the past and the future of dance in a way that really, really worked.

Most “I don’t get why people like this so much” play of the year: seriously, why did people think Clybourne Park was so funny? Is racism amusing? The joke passed me by, I’m afraid. Makes me think Scottsboro Boys might go over better in London than it did in the US …

Worst scheduling catastrophe award: initially I thought of this category as my way of venting about The Mikhailovsky Ballet coming to London as the same time as the Bolshoi and then Carlos Acosta squeezing in a week of performances while the Bolshoi was still here but as it turns out, this was only hard on my wallet – eventually I gave in and bought far more tickets than I planned – and proceeded to enjoy myself tremendously. So, at the end of the year, this award actually goes to the Living Structures/Old Vic for the Cart Macabre fuck up, which meant that I was booted out of a show I had tickets to … and then was never able to reschedule in part because they had to cancel all of the last week of their shows. They never said why. I never got to see it. I am resentful.

Biggest barking dog award: there were the shows I walked out of at the interval (Maurice at Above the Stag, A Rat’s Tale at Lyme Regis’ Marine Theatre, the Sellador Dracula at the Greenwich Playhouse, none of which I reviewed), the shows where I would have walked out had there been an interval (Ingredient X at Royal Court, Pieces of Vincent at the Arcola, Headlong Theatre’s Salome, Passion at the Donmar, that misbegotten Nutcracker I saw at the Pentameters Theater), but I guess for true disappointment, you have to be willing to come back – or be kept from leaving – all the while desperately hoping you will get back the value of your ticket. Thus, the nominees are: Paradise Found, Carlos Acosta’s Premieres, and Punchdrunk’s The Duchess of Malfi. Net hit? £140 for three tickets. Net joy? Zero, other than the pleasure of trashing them here.

Biggest loser? While there were many worthy contestants, the most shocking failure of these three was doubtlessly Paradise Found. With a cast of such high quality and so many worthies involved with the show, you really just couldn’t have seen this one coming – especially if you saw it early in the run. Seriously, THANK the bloggers that give you a chance to steer away from icebergs like this – if we weren’t sounding an early warning system, you, too, might have been dunked for a fat wad of cash AND a bad night out. As it was, we headed off a Broadway production and probably saved the investors rather a lot of money. The rest of the people, their careers won’t be too stained by this disaster.

This leaves me wondering where this blog should go in 2011 – should I make more of an effort to review the dance I see? Should I do more essays? One way or another, I’ve discovered there are limits to how much writing I can do – limits caused by having a day job *sigh*. Ah well, it keeps me in tickets at least, and that’s what counts.

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

June 6, 2010

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.)