Theatre review: Magical Musashi pulls right strings

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 11, 2013

Review Theatre

MUSASHI

Ninagawa Company

Esplanade Theatre/Last Friday

Take a step back during this play and you will realise that the difference between two feuding samurai and a pair of jealous teenagers is not much, really.

But in the hands of iconoclastic Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, who has been presented with a delightful epic by the late playwright Hisashi Inoue, these two duelling men are elevated beyond their self-righteous hatred and petty squabbles into symbols for something both sweetly simple and deeply extraordinary.

The legendary 17th-century warrior duo of Musashi Miyamoto and Kojiro Sasaki are essentially household names in Japan. The celebrity swordsmen arrange for a duel, Musashi (Tatsuya Fujiwara) outwits and outsmarts the younger Kojiro (Junpei Mizobata) with some decidedly dubious tactics, and Kojiro loses.

But their historic fight is given just about one minute of stage time in this three-hour play. Inoue is much more interested in what comes after, and with that he gives the rivals new leases of life.

Still smarting from what he believes to be an unfair and unjust fight, Kojiro seeks out Musashi at a meditation retreat at a tiny Zen temple, one that happens to be remarkably similar in structure to a Noh theatre.

During their three-day retreat, the arch-enemies bristle at each other, trade deliciously wicked insults and have to be forcibly separated by the gentler occupants of the temple.

These are the paternal monk Soho Takuan (Naomasa Musaka), his abbot Heishin (Keita Oishi) and two female patrons, retired dancer Mai Kiya (Kayoko Shiraishi) and the younger Odome Fudeya (Anne Suzuki). Not to mention the middle-aged swordsman Munenori Yagyu (Kohtaloh Yoshida), who has the odd penchant of breaking into Noh recitations during moments of excitement.

Together, they produce some of most charming and hilarious ensemble moments of the piece with their finely tuned comic timing. In one hysterical scene, Takuan, Heishin and Yagyu attempt to calm the irritable samurai by tying all their ankles together in a "sandwich of stability" (which is, of course, the farthest thing from being stable).

The absurdity of swordplay and wargames is summed up most perfectly, perhaps, in a segment where the stoic Kojiro has all the characters go through footwork exercises in preparation for a fight. They end up gliding through the moves, poker-faced, to the tune of a sultry tango. "Give them swords," a character exclaims, "or it's just Noh dancing!"

Part of the Esplanade and the Singapore Repertory Theatre's 3 Titans Of Theatre series, Musashi is the lightness to the darkness of British theatre troupe Complicite's Shun-kin, the first part of the Titans triple bill, which was staged in August and writhed with shadowy and sensual intrigue.

But while Musashi's fulcrum lies in its meditations on pacifism and the futility of violence and revenge, it is much greater and incredibly ambitious in depth and scope.

The morality play, the slapstick comedy, the bildungsroman and the play within a play all get their share of the pie, and Ninagawa deftly binds them together with traditional Japanese Noh theatre, with its focus on both the realm of mankind and the realm of ghosts.

He also skewers these traditions completely. Mai Kiya, for instance, bursts into a near-blasphemous (and incredibly funny) Noh rendition of an octopus about to be butchered for a meal, including bits about wasabi and relish.

At the same time, through a metacognitive stroke of comedic genius, the characters seem to recognise that they are all part of the grand illusion of theatre, the makers of that sound and fury - whether in reminding one another to hurry up in their telling of tales, or being unabashedly critical of another's dull narrative.

"We know how you people like plays," one character declares in the second half of the work (a half that is significantly more ponderous and didactic than the first).

But like these characters, and like the hapless Kojiro and Musashi, I could feel myself being manipulated into stepping into the heart of their emotional journey, their circle of revenge, forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption.

And what a wonderful manipulation it was. In fact, to spell out their tale in this way would hardly give away the layered detours the production takes to achieve this circle of life.

Ninagawa is the puppet master of this production and he knows it. While you are splitting your sides laughing at the absurd humour and lighthearted self- deprecation of the work, he has you trussed up by the wrists and ankles, every audience member a marionette in his palm.

He is helped by a gorgeous set by Tsukasa Nakagoshi, framed by towering bamboo trees that seem to have developed a premonition for approaching danger or plot twists as they sigh and bend collectively in the breeze.

After all, what is theatre but a magical suspension of disbelief, one that allows you the time to step into a universe both parallel and alternate, to view it with impunity, and then to step back into our world a little more enlightened - and exultant.

And Musashi does exactly that.

corriet@sph.com.sg