Arts / Aussie humour combines with Kabuki drama

In the Pleasure House

THE spectacular Kabuki of Japan is one of the world’s most audience-savvy theatrical forms and an ANU drama group is planning to follow its example.

In recent years the 41-year-old Za Kabuki club, the longest running Kabuki group outside of Japan, has discovered that when it comes to crossing the cultural boundaries, comedy works better than tragedy.

In what they’re calling “a new slant”, their latest production opening tonight, “Topnot Bunshichi: A Story of Human Relations”, will feature all of old-style Aussie humour, visible in physical action and on the screen surtitles that will help audiences understand what’s going on.

Supported by the Embassy of Japan in Canberra and staged under the watchful eye of veteran director Shun Ikeda of the ANU Japan Centre, the play follows the vicissitudes of an impoverished Japanese family and the economic opportunities the local “pleasure district” offers.

Backstage Lilliana Cazabon-Mitchell applies Kabuki makeup to Peter Gravestock.

“CityNews” popped in backstage at a dress rehearsal earlier in the week and found the performers chortling and bantering as they made up and donned their costumes for a production that involves a great deal of cross-dressing.

Peter Gravestock, who plays the attendant to the formidable madam in the “pleasure house” closed his eyes as Lilliana Cazabon-Mitchell applied the heavy make up for which Kabuki is known. “I’m the comic relief,” he said.

Out in the auditorium, Erin McCullagh, producer, club president and an honours graduate in Japanese, said that the production would be in that language, an opportunity for students to obtain some fluency. For her part, she had been to Japan on exchange to perfect her language skills and had obtained a grasp of the spoken language sufficient to be able to take directions from Ikeda in Japanese, and many of the other students could do that too.

Although there was a linguistic purpose, it was also a way of having fun and was aimed at appealing to an Australian rather than overseas audience. But the club has travelled to Japan more than once, in 2016, the crew once again travelled to Japan, last year performing three shows in the Tohoku region in areas affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“We always have a dance at the end, we make it our own,” McCullagh said, “but we can’t do what the professionals can do, so we have a dance at the end, comedy appeals to an Australian audience.”

In the “pleasure house”.

That was obvious in the scenes, in the pleasure house where the question of exploitation was dealt with in a comic way.

The director, Mr Ikeda, a long-time Japanese studies faculty member, said he’d been involved in setting up the group in 1976, when they began with contemporary plays, later turning to Kabuki.

As usual approach, he said was to show DVDs of professional productions to the students and give them a choice. Over the years they have done all kinds of Kabuki plays, from historical dramas like the world-famous “Love Suicides at Amijima” by “the Shakespeare of Japan”, Chikamatsu Monzaemon to comedies like the one coming up this week.

The plot, he said, had been adapted by the playwright Enokido Kenji from the Rakugo storytelling tradition of the early Meiji period. The historical and tragic plays featured classical language sometimes inaccessible to modern students but comedy gave the opportunity for them to use vernacular language.

“In the 1990s within some tragedies but they were unpopular… There are not many female roles in the Kabuki and it’s easier in comedy,” Ikeda said.

What we saw at dress rehearsal proved that as there were several quirky cross-dressing performances including the pipe smoking Madam, her masseuse, and a housewife, played by men and young warriors by women.

“This all helps cultural understanding,” Ikeda concluded.

The Embassy of Japan in Canberra presents “Topnot Bunshichi”, at Theatre 3, 3 Repertory Lane, Acton, 6.30pm, Friday and Saturday October 6 and 7. Bookings to canberrarep.org.au or tickets at the door

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