‘H’ Turning Japanese

From Pavis (1996) The Intercultural Performance Reader London and New York: Routledge.

Christel Weiler ‘Japanese traces in Robert Wilson’s Productions’ (pp. 105-13) and Robert Wilson interviewed by Der Spiegel, ‘Hear, See, Act’ (pp. 99-104):

(I haven’t worked out whether Christel is male or female, so instead of using s/he throughout, I’ll plump for female.  Apologies for any unexpected gender realignment!)

Christel Weiler’s article exploring the Japanese traces in Wilson’s work also offers a couple of useful insights.  Although she points out that Wilson’s aesthetic is essentially personal rather than cultural (?), she explores through his example how a practitioner can be energised by intercultural exposure.  Weiler compares Wilson to Brecht: Brecht was already thinking about his theory of alienation, but his exposure to Chinese theatre helped it to be ‘formulated […] more clearly’ (p. 106).  Likewise, when Wilson discovered Noh theatre years into his career it confirmed his ‘aesthetic perception’ – ‘It respects the spectator, doesn’t afflict or attack him [sic] but leaves him space’ (citing Wilson p.107).  Weiler’s comments on Wilson/Noh sheds light on certain aspects of Ryutopia Noh’s Hamlet. The Wilson/Noh artist ‘does not force his emotions on the audience’ but ‘walks on stage fresh, as if he knew nothing’ (p. 107).  Noh actor Hideo Kanze comments, ‘It doesn’t do you any good to act on the basis of how you feel; you’ve got to work on the basis of how you look’ (p. 107).  This separation of feeling and appearing is apparently typical of ‘stylized’ kata movements in Kabuki. Citing Jacob Raz, ‘the emphasis on [kata] has developed into the interesting Kabuki convention of separating action from reaction.  If the hero hits his enemies, their reaction occurs – temporally and spatially – separately, thus breaking action and reaction into small fragments of time and space […] Every move is important.  There is no such thing as a meaningless gesture’ (p. 110).  Raz goes on to discuss the slow tempo of Kabuki, which doesn’t bear any resemblance to my memory of going to see Kabuki in Tokyo, however.  I remember a fast-paced comic plot that, to my alien eyes, seemed to sit comfortably somewhere between Pantomime and Gilbert and Sullivan…

But back to Wilson turning Japanese!  Weiler concludes, however, that the appropriation of Japanese theatre elements in Wilson’s work aren’t necessarily about Japan/ese, but are rather ‘symbols of the “foreign” in general’ (p.112). They represent ‘alienation’ and ‘incommensurability’, and in this, Weiler argues (or, at least, I think Weiler argues), the audience finds the attraction, ‘the beauty in the “foreign” which fascinates us’ (p. 113).  This, I suppose, links to what Alex Huang notes as the Westerners fascination with the visual ‘exoticism’  of Asian theatres.

Robert Wilson, in his Der Spiegel interview, sheds further light on why Japanese theatre in particular helped him develop his vision. ‘ Theatre should not interpret, but should provide us with the possibility of contemplating a piece of work and reflecting on it.  If you behave as if you’ve grasped everything, then the work is finished […] I always tell my actors, “It’s not our job to provide answers, but to raise questions.  We must ask the questions so that the text opens itself to us, and by doing that we enter into dialogue with the audience”‘ (p. 101).  Interestingly for me, his example is, of course, Hamlet.

‘The text is just the surface, in some ways the skin and there is flesh underneath it and underneath that the bones. One single word, let’s say “Hamlet”, or even in one single letter of that, “H” can contain everything a man has ever felt, experienced or suffered.  It’s very complex‘ (p.103, my emphasis).  I’ve singled out this sentence because of its possible relevance to the recent Gdansk production, H.

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