For most of the audience sitting in the Music Workshop of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Wednesday 30 September (and repeated the next evening) the experience surely was a ‘first’, for I imagine few of us had previously watched – or even dreamed they would ever succeed in sitting through – a Noh play end to end. And yet, there we all were, watching a Noh play in strict Japanese format all about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the suffering caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima seventy years ago.
For one who has no knowledge of the Japanese language or specialist interest in exotic types of theatre (and that excludes me), Noh can seem as weird as you get: no action to speak of; stylised characters, often wearing outlandish costumes and masks, shuffling onto the stage and staying stock still, making minimal movements and chanting with a strange kind of bleating vibrato; and everything accompanied by seemingly random bangings on percussion instrument and shrill outbursts on a small flute. Extremely high on curiosity value, no doubt about it, but with nothing that would normally engage your attention for more than a couple of minutes.
Although I understand that Noh has been ‘done in English’ before, I can readily see why it isn’t done very often. For I can all too easily envisage how – in the wrong hands and with inadequate preparation – the whole thing could go horribly wrong, with the audience either heading for the exit at the earliest opportunity or stifling incontrollable giggles. This is a genre of spectacle in which no half-measures are allowed.
So congratulations to the Japanese-Australian team for blowing all my prejudices to pieces and demonstrating that there is nothing to be afraid of and that the right way to engage a non-Japanese audience is not by dumbing down or cutting corners, but by giving every aspect of the work – text, music, movement, gesture, dance, costumes, the lot – the closest possible attention. The end product was not only easy to follow, but also turned out to be a moving experience. After a few minutes of adjustment to the (very slow) pace, to certain quirks (it is an odd kind of vibrato), to the confined theatrical space and to the peculiar soundscape, the whole thing began to make sense, even giving us a real shock at the focal moments of the drama.
So many thanks to everyone involved, particularly the authors (Allan Marett, Richard Emmert and Akira Matsui), the excellent soloists, chorus, orchestra and backstage experts, but also the long list of institutions and associations that were needed to support the whole venture.