Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 5 May, 2010

Director Yukio Ninagawa is now such a frequent visitor to the British stage (most regularly of late as part of the Barbican’s BITE programmes, as here) that audiences have largely passed through the initial, easy stage of responding to his work as exotica. We can now admire it on its own terms. Ninagawa does not have a trademark style as such, but rather a continuing interest in blending classicism with modernity, whether the classicism in question is western (he is some way towards realising his ambition to stage all of Shakespeare’s plays) or Japanese.
Musashi is newly written by Hisashi Inoue (who died just last month), but its subject is the near-legendary 17th-century samurai Musashi Miyamoto. Inoue begins with Musashi’s famous 1612 duel with Kojiro Sasaki, then imagines the rivals’ paths crossing again six years later, on a three-day retreat at a small, isolated Buddhist temple. Kojiro challenges Musashi to a rematch when the retreat is over, but in the meantime they must co-exist more or less peacefully. However, the priests and other visitors seem intent on dissuading them from fighting by means of various appeals, parables and stratagems.
Inoue keeps a strong vein of comedy pulsing throughout the piece, often deploying bathos to great effect when some grand dramatic utterance subsides with a plonk into personal foible. One of the retreat-goers (played with nicely absurd dignity by Kohtaloh Yoshida) suffers from a compulsion to burst into traditional Noh verse, which is nicely absurd in the context of the text and staging. Ninagawa uses little of the high Japanese dramatic idiom, except for one or two brief and deliberately obtrusive set-pieces. There are nods towards tradition, though, both in the temple’s configuration, which is reminiscent of a Noh stage, and in that the play broadly follows the structures of Mugen Noh plays, in which a traveller-protagonist encounters spirits who tell him a story. For the temple turns out, apart from the duellists, to be peopled by unquiet ghosts seeking redemption. (At one deliciously ridiculous moment, it is suggested that they might be were-badgers!)
Tatsuya Fujiwara as Musashi and Ryo Katsuji as Kojiro combine an upright adherence to the samurai code of bushido with a certain vulnerability. Ninagawa directs with his characteristic painterly eye, creating visual compositions at once sumptuous and economical.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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