You might wonder about the usefulness of a theatre review from Japan. I mean, realistically, even if I were about to bestow 5 stars and heap lavish unqualified praise on Hideki Noda’s Q: A night at the Kabuki at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, you’re not going to be rushing to circle a date in your diary, or checking out likely pre-theatre dinner options in the Ikebukuro area. Tokyo is, after all, “not just round the corner”, as my mother always says.
But bear with me, Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre have high hopes for this show, and are working hard to bring it to Edinburgh for next year’s festival (negotiations are ongoing), or failing that, another UK venue. Assuming Q does make it to the UK, you’re likely to hear quite a lot about it, and I’d imagine tickets would be highly sought after: so treat this as a very early foretaste of delights to come, and an opportunity to steal a march on Will Gompertz, Lloyd Evans, Michael Billington et al in the theatrical knowledge stakes.
Q: A Night at the Kabuki written and directed by Japanese auteur Hideki Noda is a bizarre and fantastical blend of theatre, dance, and music centered around the Romeo and Juliet story, and set to the songs of Queen – specifically the album A Night at the Opera, to whose original master tapes Noda was granted access. Also in the mix is the Japanese Kabuki story Shunkan, and some more recent history (the detention of Japanese soldiers in Siberia post 1945) resulting in a complex multi-layered narrative that requires concentration, patience, and a certain amount of background knowledge to be appreciated fully.
The show opens by posing the question of what would happen if the star-crossed lovers were actually alive, and able to reimagine or rewrite their tragic tale. The wider significance is the idea of whether it is possible to recapture a lost love, or make up for past mistakes. And what follows, in the proceeding two and a half hours, is the answer.
Unsurprisingly, in the year the film Bohemian Rhapsody proved a worldwide hit, it’s the use of the Queen soundtrack that has attracted most attention. Indeed, the surviving band members were rumoured to be planning to attend – and yours truly was in line for an interview! In the end they chose not to come (they are touring in Japan in January anyway) so I lost my scoop (bah!). Nevertheless, the band’s manager did see the show and was reported to have been impressed – there’s a positive review of the show on the Queen website.
The 12 songs from the album are used as leitmotifs, highlighting or emphasizing certain emotions, or simply introducing scenes: Seaside Rendezvous ushers in a holiday outing while Bohemian Rhapsody appears in battle scenes when human life is taken, and Love of My Life appears repeatedly to focus on the sense of nostalgic yearning that lies at the heart of the play. It’s an effective device that ties the diffuse strands together and helps clarify the various themes.
Perhaps a bigger draw even than the music, for the Tokyo audience, is the cast, one of the most glittering ever assembled on a Japanese theatrical stage. The leads are Jun Shison and Hirose Suzu, two “idols” who look like they have stepped off the pages of a dreamy romance manga novel, and whose appearance virtually guaranteed a sell-out run. Japanese theatre is very much star led, if David Beckham or Harry Styles ever fancy building on their embryonic careers as thesps, they’d be sure of a huge success in Tokyo, whatever the show.
Shison and Suzu are expertly supported by a cast of less swoon-worthy, but still hugely popular “talents” (as they are known in Japan), including Naoto Takenaka, Satoshi Hashimoto and Kazushige Komatsu. These are unknown figures in the west but instantly recognizable, “been around for ever”, household names in Japan. Most are best known for lightweight TV dramas at the soppy end of the spectrum, for dabbling in music or comedy, or for their innumerable appearances in “terebi cms” (TV commercials).
But I shouldn’t be rude about the performers as, despite a paucity of serious heavyweight acting experience, they are actually superb in what must be a hellishly difficult assignment. Scene and costume changes are dizzyingly rapid, the onstage choreography is complex and costume changes relentless. It’s a bit like a speeded up pantomime, with the potential for slip-ups high. But on the night I attended everything was flawless.
But the 64000 Yen question – is it any good?
Well, one of Noda’s previous shows was called “Egg”, and if you were to preface that title with the word “Curate’s” you’d arrive at a pretty accurate summation of my feelings about Noda’s work in general. Some parts of Q work splendidly, apart from the brilliance of the performances, there is humour, pathos, and visual delights aplenty, and one cannot watch without the rather enervating feeling of being driven somewhere at high speed, and at some risk, to a destination as yet unknown.
It is exciting.
As Freddie Mercury said of his work: “You can do anything you like with my work but never make me boring.”
Noda has taken this to heart, and serves up a cornucopia of theatrical treats that pays testament to his rampantly fertile imagination.
And yet, it is overwhelming too. I did wonder at times if Noda has a tendency to throw too much into the pot, with his dazzling cleverness at risk of obscuring the simplicity and tenderness at the heart of the story. The ending attempts to slow things down and synthesise all the various elements, but some in the audience may have been too exhausted by then to be as moved as the director must have intended.
As John Updike once wrote, of a very good, but rather overcomplicated novel: “Fewer ingredients, slower cooked, would have made a more satisfying meal”.
Perhaps, but I still very much hope the show finds a theatre and an audience in the UK. It may need some adjustments to suit a British audience, and may require a measure of pre-performance reading of the background notes in the programme; but it is a tremendous, and fascinating, undertaking that deserves to be seen by a wider audience.
And if the Queen vogue continues into next summer to coincide neatly with a focus on all things Japanese in the run up to the Olympics, it could be a sensation.