Noh Reimagined

Reviewer's Rating

Noh, is a traditional Japanese performing art, that blends drama, music, and dance in a unique manner. Originating in the 14th century, it is renowned for its minimalistic staging, the use of masks, and stylized gestures and movements. The themes of Noh performances often draw from classical literature, mythology, and historical events – with a strong focus on spiritual, philosophical, and esoteric narratives.

Noh is recognised for its slow and deliberate pace – as well as the elegance of its visual and auditory elements that are deeply connected to Japanese heritage. The performances typically include an intense and complex storyline, and are accompanied by Kyogen, a one-act comedic interlude, to provide relief from the intensity.

Specialized music and movements, are essential to Noh, requiring years of training to master. Movements follow specific patterns, often involving sliding footwork, which becomes natural only after extensive practice. A typical Noh play involves an intermediary actor who explains the main character’s identity and purpose before the character reappears in their true, often supernatural, form. The main character traditionally wears a mask, which can be a centuries-old heirloom. The stories often revolve around historical figures or events, making prior study beneficial for a deeper understanding and appreciation.

This performance was based on a notable story in the Noh repertoire called “Sumidagawa” (Sumida River), which poignantly depicts a mother’s grief and search for her lost son. The play unfolds with the mother – first depicted as a crazy lazy – traveling in despair to find her abducted child. She arrives at the Sumida River and meets a ferryman, who recounts the tale of a young boy who died tragically and whose grave lies nearby. Realizing the boy is her son, the mother is overcome with sorrow and visits the grave, expressing her profound grief through heart-wrenching gestures and lamentation. In a climactic moment of spiritual transcendence, the boy’s spirit appears, allowing a fleeting reunion before vanishing, leaving the mother in poignant solitude.

This story is first told by an English narrator, then after an interval, is preceded by the Noh performance, however perhaps it would have also been a good addition to add Kyogen to balance out the intensity.

“Sumidagawa” perfectly showcased the emotional depth and spiritual themes inherent in Noh drama, emphasizing the art’s ability to convey profound human experiences through minimalistic yet powerful performances.

This was an interesting show, with a captivated audience. However, if one does not know the history or details behind the performance – it can be hard to fully appreciate its mastery.

Producer: Akiko Yanagisawa (Mu Arts)

English retelling: Xanthe Gresham Knight

Starring: Mikata Shizuka, Seigo Mikuriya

Venue: Kings Place

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (20 minute interval)

Review by Sofia Moran