Directed by Shun Ikeda
Produced by Naomi Hölm
ANU Za Kabuki 2014
37th Annual Japanese Evening
Not knowing more than a few sentences in Japanese and having never seen a Kabuki performance before (or an Australian Kabuki adaptation), I was definitely in for an eccentric ride in my front row seat. While it was a window into traditional Japanese culture, the play had been adapted so people like myself could understand and laugh at everything too. As Shun Ikeda, Director and Head of ANU’s Japan Centre, said, “Please laugh!”
ANU’s Za Kabuki is the longest-running Kabuki theatre group outside Japan and is comprised of mainly ANU students who are learning Japanese. In this particular performance, almost all the participating students were learning Japanese as a second or third language. The play is the loving labour of seven months of dedicated work by the group, who started reading the classical Japanese script back in March and had rehearsals once a week since then. Sukeroku is a traditional Kabuki play, first performed in 1713 about the protagonist Sukeroku, a Samurai who seeks to avenge his father’s murder, but dallies in Yoshiwara, the pleasure district.
The first thing everyone needs to know about Kabuki is that it does indeed contain cross-dressing. Or as Ikeda stated in his opening speech, “Transvestites!” The male cast had been elaborately dressed in kimonos (kindly lent out by the Japanese Embassy) with decadent courtesan wigs and powdered faces. The females on the other hand, had been given male kimonos and clever make up artistry which gave them heavy set brows and comical facial hair. No doubt more of the laughter was derived from viewing the high-pitched tittering of the male cast as courtesans rather than the females with deep voices and scowls. In particular, the background courtesans provided a hilariously bitchy and sassy affirmation or commentary every time Sukeroku proclaimed something. Props to the sassiest and best-dressed of them all, Beng Cheng Tan.
The great success of this play is due to a number of things, but mostly its clever intercultural and anachronistic themes which are thrown in unexpectedly. The fantastic humour of the play takes from the not-so subtle insertion of Facebook memes, “selfies” and the use of mobile phones in Edo Period Japan. Another great intercultural technique was seen when the actors reiterated their lines, but in blunt Aussie accents with the male actors reverting to their bloke voices. A rather surprising booty-shaking to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and “What Does the Fox Say?” done in kimonos was a great way to end at intermission!
Although I’m not a native Japanese speaker, or indeed, a speaker at all, the Japanese intonation sounded flawless to me from every single member of the cast. Several of the actors had large amounts of lines – I can only imagine how hard it was to learn them all in English, let alone another language! The entire cast was utterly amazing and it was easy to see how hard they worked to perfect their performance. There were some standout performances that are definitely worth mentioning:
Timothy McGarry as Sukeroku’s favourite courtesan, Agemaki, was masterful in his smooth transition between the simpering, droning female Agemaki to the Aussie Agemaki. He made an imposing figure with an elaborate wig and beautifully intricate kimono and obi sash. Katherine Zhou was charismatic as the title character Sukeroku: she had an incredibly strong stage presence both physically and costume/make-up wise, but the tonal quality of her voice was entrancing. She is definitely one to watch! Other mentions go to Makoto Arami and Natalie Lee. Makoto Arami played Kuroko, who at first seemed like a somewhat nondescript props helper dressed all in black. For the first couple of scenes he would do a Gollum-like skulk onto stage with a black pillowcase on his head to take away props or provide new ones, but slowly through the course of the play he became a character too. Although he had no lines, and a somewhat visually limiting pillow case on his head, he provided distracting but subtle comic relief. Natalie Lee had some fantastic comedic qualities as the drunk henchman of the antagonist. She skilfully (and I mean skilfully in traditional wooden sandals, “Geta”) and drunkenly stumbled across the stage like a lunatic for the entire play.
Sukeroku was a rip-roaring night of entertainment and the evidence of huge amounts of love and hard work. The entire production was well done and artfully considered through the group effort of adapting the traditional play for a more modern, Aussie perspective. You may need to proceed with caution, but Za Kabuki’s Sukeroku is a clever amalgamation of traditional Japanese culture, Western modernity and Aussie slang. Watch out for them next year!