Ushered through the stage door of the theatre, the opening-night audience was given a clue that this was no ordinary play – the Japanese talent for horror was certainly brought to mind as we found ourselves trapped back stage in the semi-dark, crowded by the other audience members and unsure where to look. After a moment of tense speculation however, we found Hanako (Kimi Tsukakoshi) kneeling down in a pool of light rehearsing the very thing that she was forced to do over and over again for the entertainment of western audiences just like us. Relieved, we were finally guided away from her tiresome death, moved over the bridge into life again and we found our usual safe-seats awaiting us on the other side of the stage.
Jonathan Shankey’s set design is unique, sleek and moody with paper lanterns strung on the lighting rig, the lanterns constantly moving in their own haunted breeze and on the floor, shiny, black, reflective tiles that somehow only reflected the very immediate faces of the actresses giving them a ghoulish veneer as if wading through the heavy ink of the stories that burden them. The mask of Ota Hisa’s face, created by Rodin is encased in a translucent box that sits beside a see-through chair, beautifully representing the mythical powers of the Noh mask, in this case, the actresses real face. The story is strong but the visual poetry is here exceptional. Costumes by Kathryn Walsh embrace the asymmetry of Japans coolest designers (think Miyake), of particular note is Mishma’s half-suit that spoke of his unwilling entrapment between two cultural worlds.
Before she is renamed Hanako by the dramatic Fuller (Caroline Dunphy), Ota Hisa’s life appears quite similar to that of Lady Han in the reworked fifteenth-century play by Zeami (the father of Noh). The original Noh play is about a ‘mad-woman’ (of course) who is cast out of the ‘inn’ by the proprietress because she falls in love with a traveller who gifts her a fan and spoils her for the rest of the guests. As the character of Lady Han falls into madness, Hisa struggles against the identity that is forced on her by a stagnant cultural legacy while Mishima tries to pull her back into it and away from the future world where she happily escapes. Noriaki Okubo is painfully elusive in the role of Mishima, the simmering self-torture of the Japanese artist evident in his steely expression and sharp dialogue (mostly in Japanese). Kimi Tsukakoshi is chilling and yet familiar as Hanako and Caroline Dunphy (also Director and Co-Creator) stars as Loie Fuller, evolving into the over-zealous stage-mother of her adopted (or is that abducted) eastern star-child.
While the suggestion of traditional Noh theatre – more narrated characters than immersive representations - may bring to mind slow and drawn out tedium, Hanako is anything but dull; The Belloo team have produced an action packed, fast paced mash-up of rap music, martial arts, fashion and mayhem as stories about women at opposite ends of time vie for control over the destiny of an eternity of Hanako’s but who will win? We may have had that answer right at the very beginning.
Caroline Dunphy and Katherine Lyall-Watson have created an impressive piece of theatre come history lesson that takes us on an electrically charged, cross-cultural, multi-disciplined journey while Belloo Creative’s format for hosting a production is refreshing with an inspired pre-show art exhibition by emerging artists - many of the pieces were sold. Don’t miss this show but stay away from the third toilet cubical!!