Japanese theatre maker Hideki Noda is probably best known in this country for the string of hugely inventive smaller-scale shows he made for Soho Theatre at the end of the ’00s, in partnership with the great actor Kathryn Hunter.
At home, however, Noda is far from a fringey cult artist, as his first London show in an age shows us. Heading out on global tour after huge success back home, ‘A Night at the Kabuki’ is what he does at scale.
‘A Night at the Kabuki’ is essentially a wild, dayglo reinterpretation of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ that relocates the action to a twelfth-century Japan that’s saturated in contemporary pop culture references. The name strangely undersells this fact – ie there’s no reference to Shakespeare (it’s also not actually made in a traditional kabuki theatre style). It does, however, feature the music of Queen’s 1975 album ‘A Night at the Opera’ throughout its duration (hence the name), and there’s even a lil’ video message of support from Brian May playing in the upstairs bar.
It’s not a simple play to summarise concisely, but essentially as well as retelling ‘Romeo & Juliet’ as a tale of wisecracking rival samurai houses (the Montagues and Capulets become the Minamoto and Taira clans), it also rewrites the plot to imagine that the eponymous star cross’d lovers survived the events of the original story. Here their double suicide never happened: it was actually just a cover story put in place by the clans to end their feud. But Romeo has remained in exile – the play begins with a letter he sent to Juliet finally arriving, the first she has heard from him for 30 years.
Noda aggressively shies away from earnestness, constantly deconstructing every line, action and feeling, dropping the odd bit of Shakespearean verse but more focused on his own, hyperdeveloped wordplay. There is, however, a poignant emotional through thread that comes to a head towards the end, as the younger and older versions of Romeo and Juliet make their peace with each other. There’s some serious interrogation of the fact that the most famous lovers in fiction spent just a few days together.
Noda’s own production is a feast for the eyes, in a lo-fi but maximalist way, with cloaks made of colourful balloons, fleets of gently drifting paper planes and one scene where black confetti rains down for minutes on end, like volcanic ash.
I’m not convinced it needed to be three hours long: if it’s a clever fantasia that uses Shakespeare's story as a postmodern springboard, then it is notably rather longer than Shakespeare’s story, and some of Noda’s inventive riffing feels a bit profligate. The whole Queen angle feels… overstated. The songs do provide a soundtrack, but they don’t feel that integral to the action and don’t really seem to comment on it either. I’m not really particularly familiar with Queen beyond The Hits, but they’re given far more credit than Shakespeare in the official show description, which seems pretty weird.
Forget about Queen, though, and you’re left with a joyously other show, with an almost supernatural pizzazz and exuberance to it. The ensemble is terrific, especially physically – they’re wonderful clowns but also tightly drilled as hell as a group.
So yes, ‘A Night at the Kabuki’ is somewhat puzzling, but it’s also a visually dazzling, madcap joy.