A breathtaking visual spectacle, oozing with Japanese culture and style. It delivers so much more than just another Romeo and Juliet story, but it underdelivers on the promised Queen’s music layer of the show.
Queen toured Japan for the first time in April 1975, to the joy of thousands of fans. This was six months before the release of their album “A Night at the Opera”. They became so popular among the local fans that until today their first arrival is celebrated annually with “Queen Day” in Japan (April 17th). Freddie Mercury himself became fascinated with Japanese culture -he loved traditional Japanese crafts, and would always add to his collection whenever he came to Japan. He visited Kyoto several times. Hence the idea of incorporating Queen’s music in substantially Japanese production seems like an unusual, but a not unreasonable idea.
In the case of “An Night in the Kabuki”, Queen’s music was disappointingly used more as background music. The tunes are played softly – and cut abruptly as if someone was just messing with the volume control. Multiple tracks are used, but the only one that’s used to its full potential is, of course, “Love of my Life” – a beautiful romantic ballad which marks different stages of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship. It sounds especially heartily at the very end of the performance, marking the tragic ending of the story.
“A Night At The Kabuki” features the classic Romeo and Juliet theme, but with a twist. Older Romeo and Juliet, knowing what kind of tragic fate awaits them, travel back in time to prevent certain actions and revive their love story. The first act covers the classic story we all know while the second act is a completely original story (inspired by some of Shakespeare’s other works), telling the “what if”. And yes, this idea has been explored before in “&Juliet”, but “A Night At the Kabuki” presents a much darker version of the future. Especially the second act, which takes us to a Japanese labour camp in Russia, delivers so much pain and sadness, something I did not expect to see in a classic love story.
Actors deliver the performance in a style which is rarely seen in London. The characters are loud and amplified to the maximum – both in personas, but also in the way they behave. It’s an extremely physical performance, with many lines shouted rather than recited. It felt like such a new theatre experience, encompassing the usual performance rules (at least to me). The actors covering main roles are national celebrities: Takako Matsu voiced Elsa in the Japanese version of “Frozen” and Jun Shison is a global brand ambassador for Gucci.
Costumes are such a feast for the eye. They draw from the classic Japanese opera style, with statement colours, lavish kimonos and high-quality fabrics all over. There are also quite a lot of textures used in props – as bedsheets, clouds, waves… The staging is built on various structures and weaves of fabric, and I have to say, they were so beautiful, I would love to see the costumes and props displayed somewhere in an exhibition just so I could have a closer look. Besides the costumes, the production makes use of hundreds of colourful floating balloons and black confetti falling on the stage in the second act – setting the stage’s mood in such a powerful way.
“A Night At The Kabuki” incorporates many pop cultural references – from jokes about anonymous Internet trolls to Tyra Banks. Some of the puns work well – thanks to the character of the Nurse, whose excessive, loud persona matches the absurd of jokes perfectly. Some other puns were just… A bit silly at times (I have to admit – the kind of humour matched what I envisioned as very Far-Eastern). It is very much a Japanese extravaganza – to the core! The anime-style behaviour of Old Juliet when she hits people in the head with a selfie stick and then kicks them off the stage, would delight fans of the genre (but could annoy you, if you prefer a slightly different kind of humour, especially that this joke is repeated multiple times). It’s the kind of humour that you might have seen before in Japanese reality TV shows – exaggerated to the maximum, and the kind of physical theatre that makes little kids laugh as much as (some) adults.
To be frank, the play carried quite a charm being fully performed in Japanese. However due to the subtitle screen placed high above the stage, I was constantly getting mentally detached from the action – looking from the balcony seat, there was so much space between the stage and the screen that I could not read and watch actors at the same time.
“A Night At The Kabuki” is a memorable journey through stories, times and emotions. It delivers a visually stunning experience, that dazzles even people who don’t have much interest in Japan normally (that’s me). And oh, a word of warning, after seeing the show you’ll go back to listening to “Queen – Greatest Hits” on repeat on Spotify. You’ve been warned.
A Night at the Kabuki is at Sadler’s Wells, London, 22-24 September.