Passport was out at the Kings Head in Islington last night, to see the play ‘Yama – Tales of Shonai’ by Anglo-Japanese theatre company Doubtful Sound. What a thoroughly enjoyable evening! Doubtful Sound plunder traditional Japanese folktales to show a refreshing side of Japan – fun, cheeky, mysterious, shocking and entertaining. There’s a wonderful variety of stories – some are very short, some more extended, with some clever cross-referencing between them. Bittersweet stories like The Salmon Wife contrast with out-and-out comedy (the Lord of the Underworld laments his feeble demons), and there are satisfying twists on archetypal tales such as Cinderella. Personal favourites included the very brief, very funny Lying Competition and the dangerous foxes of The Man With The Tumour on his Cheek (think the witches from Macbeth, but there are seven of them and they love drinking sake!). It’s a delight hearing the cast skipping between languages (there are subtitles for the Japanese parts) and using their voices so expressively (those seven foxes are represented by just three actors, ingeniously playing a kind of Knock Knock, Who’s There…). If you go, you’ll definitely have your own favourite episodes!
Another level of enjoyment is added by the SOAS Min’yo (Japanese folksong) Group, who variously accompany, comment on or connect the different stories with beautiful traditional songs played on authentic instruments. We’re drawn into an unfamiliar, captivating sound-world of the Japanese countryside, far away from the big city lights.
As it turned out, last night had some technical difficulties beyond the control of the players – but it didn’t matter: it just brought audience and performers even closer together – and provided a chance to hear more of the SOAS group and even learn a song together! By the end of the evening, the audience were totally involved and even seamlessly integrated into the action on stage (watch out if you’re sitting near the front!). The joys of a small pub theatre!
Most of all, we were responding to a talented company really enjoying what they were doing, passionate about sharing their knowledge and love of Japan’s lesser-known sides.
PS After the show, I ran into one of the cast in the bar – interestingly, she said (I think) that the world of these folktales does live on in people’s minds in modern Japan. Things may appear pristine, commercial and hi-tech, but this realm of nature, spirits and strange goings-on can still infiltrate everyday life. It helps explain the Murakami I’ve just been reading…
There are two more performances of ‘Yama – Tales of Shonai’ at The Kings Head in Islington next Sunday (3pm & 7pm). Go and see it – you will definitely enjoy it!