Date November 1998
Subtitle. Sukeroku: Flower of Edo
Category Japanese Kabuki play (adapted)
Producer Roger Marsh
Director Morag Galloway
Musical Director Kerry Andrew
Special musical advisor: Yoshikazu Iwamoto
Venue. Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall
Description of set
A full width stage, four feet high, was constructed with scaffolding. A scaffolding rig at the back of the stage housed musicians seated two metres above the stage, and provided a space for the hidden sound effects orchestra. A level ramp through the audience to the stage (hanamichi) was constructed, necessitating the removal of two audience seats in each row of the left-hand block to widen the aisle. This ramp is an essential feature of the Kabuki theatre. The whole front of the stage was covered with deep red material. The towers at the back of the stage were similarly decorated with lanterns and drapes. The stage contained a trap door to allow the appearance of the ‘lion dancer’ from below. A large ‘barrel’ (in reality a cleverly disguised double ‘wheelie-bin’) stood to one side, filled with water.
I had taught a Japanese music course for several years. Shakuhachi master Yoshikazu Iwamoto had joined the department as Fellow in Japanese music in 1994, and we had set up a Centre for Research in Japanese Music. The department had acquired a number of Japanese instruments, including two kotos, a shakuhachi and a shamisen. My interest in Japanese theatre had been largely focused on Noh drama, but I had begun to explore Kabuki in more depth. It struck me that the diversity and flexibility of Kabuki would make an ideal challenge for a practical project and set current students the task of researching suitable plays on which we could base our production. Some students expressed an interest in learning Koto and shamisen, and others researched ways of adapting western instruments to resemble Japanese equivalents through non-conventional playing techniques. Someone discovered an existing English translation of Sukeroku: Flower of Edo and by the end of the summer vacation we had settled on that as the play we would adapt. I made it clear that, as far as we could, we should aim for authenticity; that we should not shy away from impersonation either vocally or dramatically. The issue of ‘appropriation’ was always a worry, but I felt that we could not really get inside Kabuki without adopting all of its techniques and characteristics as far as possible. We worked very hard at this. We found a Japanese student from outside the music department who kindly agreed to come and coach the female performers on mannerisms, including how to walk. This was complicated, of course, by the fact that Kabuki women are always played by men. Thus, our female students were being asked to impersonate men impersonating women; in a way this actually made it less perilous! Students had to research and find ways to replicate the elaborate make-up and extravagant costumes of Kabuki. The set had to provide essential features such as a ‘hanamichi’ – a ramp leading from the back of the audience onto the stage; and a trap door; and a large barrel of water into which the protagonist could jump, sending a shower of water over the front of the stage. These were considerable problems to overcome (in five weeks) but overcome they were. Musically, too, the challenges were immense, involving transcription of existing Japanese music and composition of new pieces in suitably Japanese style to accompany the action; apart from some choruses, there are not really separate musical pieces in Kabuki (for details see Karry Andrews’ note in the programme booklet). The whole play is very long, and even in our abridgement it ran for a little over two hours.
Footnote: having very carefully covered the polished wooden floor of the concert hall beneath the water barrel, we were confident there would be no water damage. But we were wrong. During the clear up on the final night, extensive black stains were revealed. I seriously thought I might be losing my job. Ironically, in a violent storm a month later (Dec 26th 1998), the roof blew of the concert hall, and for several weeks thereafter rain poured into the concert hall. Our black stains were the least of anyone’s worry.