Medea: Homage of Noh Theatre
by Yayoi Theatre Movement
[November 8th/2013 at The Orpheum Annex]
by Catherine Owen
The fusion of Euripedes’ Greek tragedy Medea and the language, costumes and aesthetics of Japanese Noh drama may at first seem incongruous and unlikely. But not only is there in fact many connections between these two ancient forms of drama, such as the use of masks, dance and a chorus, Yayoi Hirano draws on her early obsession with the Greek play, along with her facility with Noh drama, to meld these art forms almost seamlessly. The pure, uncluttered vision of Noh predominates in the stage design in which a sequence of squares extend, both providing boundaries for the actors and symbolizing the notions of private life, polis and the state of exile that the main characters whirl within. On one side, the Japanese shakuhachi and drums; on the other, a Western piano. The former provides moments of driving punctuation to the dialogue while the latter rises at moments of dance.
Medea begins with the heroine’s wailing from a balcony set above the main stage, the chanting of the Chorus from a runway above stage left and shortly after, the Nurse’s dark narration as she scuttles about the squares, lamenting the fate of her mistress. If Euripedes’ narrative is familiar then the English seems almost unnecessary; the Japanese much more essential and relevant to the whole experience. However, as this is not the case for many audience members, the English as spoken by the anxious Nurse, the Chorus who voices the woman’s plight, the gruff male characters and occasionally Medea herself is required to provide the key threads of the tale, the Japanese serving more poignantly to express the intensity of emotion.
The power of Medea resides in the audience’s created ambivalence. Should they feel empathy for this woman who sacrificed all and now, spurned, determines on revenge, even to the point of slaying her own children? Or should one take the side of the more rational Jason or the cautious Creon who aim to safeguard their futures, though they utter such vitriolic statements as “if women didn’t exist we would be rid of our miseries.” There is no simple response. Medea’s young sons, played by exquisitely wrought puppets, emphasize this ambivalence, seen playing violently with swords at the start and then, before their sudden deaths by sword, being caressed by their mother’s grieving yet vicious hands. Even the contrast between the characters’ beautifully embroidered karaoris and their stark white masks elaborate the impossibility of determining easy condemnations.
Hirano’s Medea draws on the defined motions of Noh from fan-snaps to sharp foot-falls, the concealing properties of her Uwagi, and the deep grief of the Utai chanting to craft a tragic figure the audience can feel for even while they are recoiling from the masked demon her desire for destruction releases. The princess in her silent dying whirl barely moves us, while the sight of Medea, at the play’s close, riding on the shifting light of her dragon to exile, a dead son in each hand, crying out to Jason of his complicity, is utterly stirring and a profound tribute to the continued potency of Euripedes’ disruptive drama.
Catherine Owen (is a Vancouver poet, writer, bassist and tutor/editor with two English Literature degrees from SFU. She has been publishing trade books since 1998 and as of 2012 has nine titles out of poetry, one of epistles and a collection of prose essays/memoirs. Her presses include: Exile Editions, Wolsak & Wynn, Anvil Press, Mansfield Press and Black Moss. Her new poetry collection, Designated Mourner, is out from ECW in 2014.) .