Ayako Takemura, Busu and the Damask Drum, Busu Theatre, Ecco Shirasaka, Edinburgh Fringe, Greenside @ Royal Terrace, Haruyo Kobayashi, History, Japan, Rie Tamura, Sayoko Isotani, StoneCrabs, Theatre Review, Tomomi Sakai, Yukio Mishima
So there is a little girl who cannot be more than five years old sitting in the front row. She is engrossed in this play and calm even during scenes that would panic other children. Whenever I spot children in the theatre, I keep a spare eye on how they behave. If there is fortuitously one of these homunculi to hand you can, unlike with adults, easily read when they are bored or amused or frightened.
Her reaction during a significant moment in this play startles and intrigues me.
The play is “Busu and the Damask Drum” and it is showing at Greenside on the Royal Terrace. These are fourteenth-century stories that were adapted in the 1950s by the renowned novelist Yukio Mishima. They are staged here by Tokyo’s Busu Theatre. There are two separate plays back-to-back: the first, “Busu,” is a bombastic farce from the Kyogen genre; the second, “The Damask Drum,” is spooky, melancholic, and an example of Noh theatre. Both are performed skilfully and with supreme ease by an all-female cast.
I am minded to compare “Busu and the Damask Drum” to None Drama Studio’s “The Cricket,” a Beijing production that I had gone to inspect at the very start of the Fringe. “The Cricket” was performed in a 150-seat venue to an audience of, well, just me. I had wondered who this show was intended for. Edinburgh’s Chinese multitudes had stayed away, whilst there must have been bigger crowd-pleasers available to non-Chinese China enthusiasts. “The Cricket” was beautiful but it had no dialogue. By contrast, “Busu and Damask Drum” has procured a small happy audience, about a third of who appear to be of Japanese descent (including the little girl). The dialogue is in Japanese but, instead of subtitles, any lines that are necessary to following the story are spoken in English.
There is also an act of friendliness at the end of “Busu and the Damask Drum” that I have never seen before. After the official applause, the cast tell the audience that they can switch their phones back on. They then perform a short dance number in their costumes and the audience are allowed to photograph them as “a memento.” This is unobtrusive and there is no reason why such photo opportunities should not be practised far more widely at the Fringe.
In “Busu,” a Master (Ayako Takemura) leaves two clownish employees (Rie Tamura and Sayoko Isotani) in charge of his antique store. He orders them not to touch anything but his rules are incrementally broken, and soon the entire place has been turned upside-down. It is not apparent how this story is concluded, with the plot melting away amidst outlandish fisticuffs and a spectacular dance. The clowns are pitch-perfect and loveably squeaky. They have clearly both graduated with firsts from a top Clown University.
In “The Damask Drum,” a poor gardener (Ecco Shirasaka) falls in love with a beautiful lady (Tomomi Sakia) who is somewhat out of his league. He sends her one hundred and one love letters and she sends him a damask drum. She promises to hasten to him when he beats the drum. Being made of damask, however, the drum is soundless. Initially overjoyed, but then realising the impossibility of the challenge, the gardener gruesomely disembowels himself. He returns as a ghost along with a creepy menagerie of masked demons, who slink around him silently, as if on damask paws.
Despite the absence of blood, there is an unexpected, unnervingly realistic quality to the hara-kiri. Moreover, it is performed right in front of the little girl. She screeches with excitement, obviously not understanding what she is seeing.
The writer Yukio Mishima had also disembowelled himself. He was an uber-nationalist who had attempted to incite a coup d’état in 1970. He and some comrades had invaded the eastern headquarters of the Japanese army, or whatever remained of it in 1970, and tied the commandant to a chair. Mishima next appeared on a balcony in front of the camp’s soldiers and delivered a speech exhorting them to overthrow the Constitution. Was this a sincere bid for power, or simply decadence and medievalism? The solders interpreted it as bad theatre – they booed and shouted “get off!” Returning indoors, Mishima committed the act that is here replicated so faithfully in this fourteenth century drama, slicing thickly through his belly with a sword. On stage, the gardener’s death is hurried along by hysterical, abusive laughter from his suitor’s cronies. The soldiers’ jeering is thus echoed and it will continue to echo in the innocent giggling of the little girl. She will have the last laugh.
What does it mean? Was Mishima’s death due to his love for an idealistic, unattainable beauty, or was it the product of an anti-democratic insolence? Whatever it might mean, some shade of Mishima is eerily superimposed over the ghost of the lovelorn gardener and looking out at us through his eyes. This conservative author is now, characteristically, at home in a story that was told centuries before he died.