I have to admit – I’m a sucker for a bit of rarefied Japanese elegance on stage in almost any context: the very mention of Noh theatre always makes my ears prick up. So, when Grimeborn proffered Verity Lane’s double bill of bilingual English/Japanese pieces inspired by Lane’s time in Japan, drawing on ancient Japanese folklore, I knew instantly what I was doing with my Friday night. Or, at least, I thought I did.
This performance proved very difficult to get hold of, in more ways than one. The first part opened with a messy stage strewn with crumpled paper, bowls of various sizes, drums, and two small fishtanks filled with water, with Japanese graffiti scrawled on many objects in neon paint. Onto the stage arrived Coco Sato, our live origamist, accompanied by Kiku Day to provide an atmospheric accompaniment on shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute whose breathy, breathless and occasionally shrieking whistle will be familiar to you if you’ve ever curled up with a good (old) samurai film. The ‘Soundscapes’ began in earnest with narration by Tomoko Komura: although loud and clear, her English was so rapid I found it hard to cotton on to most of the poems, which seemed to be aiming at mystical beauty (the nightingale, the owl, and the crane) but generally erred on the side of incomprehensible kitsch. Into this by now slightly scrappy arrangement, with remarkable calmness, danced percussionist Beibei Wang. Wang was the undoubted highlight of the night: her intense, focused musicality was simply extraordinary, part percussion, part theatre, part dance. There seemed to be nothing on stage Wang couldn’t turn into an interesting sound: her fingers flashed and flew as she splashed and paddled water, scrumpled brown paper, and kept on rhythmically drumming on anything and everything she could find. Now, the other elements (origami, flute, spoken poetry) became distractions from Wang’s sinuous, agile brilliance; despite sincerity and commitment on all sides, there were several moments when it all felt dangerously on the edge of being silly. Perhaps less might have achieved more.
As the final Soundscape culminated in a large paper origami crane flapping off the stage, the interval came as a surprise: given that we had seen a crane, had we now seen everything? With no more than a bare cast list to go on, it was difficult to know what more there could be; but ‘The Crane’ proper began in the second half, and here the wheels sadly came off altogether. Some elegant animations by Rowan O’Brien of cranes flying over snowy mountains created lovely visual tone, but the narrative impact of whatever was supposed to be going on was thoroughly deadened by the absence of translation provided (unusual for Grimeborn), the extensive portions in Japanese proving frankly impenetrable, rather than intriguingly mysterious. Again, Beibei Wang was a virtuoso spectacle, the best drumming I have ever seen on any stage, opera or rock, but if you were not already familiar with the folktale of the crane, you really were none the wiser as to its plot, or its lesson. I came away frustrated, rather than mystified.
Grimeborn is an ideal platform for experimental pieces: this was a well-intentioned creative act on the very edge of opera, which showcased some remarkable talent, but ultimately failed to fly. However, innovation is always disorientating: Verity Lane should be commended for trying something new. With a little more refinement, and clearer narrative guiding for an English audience, she might really be onto something.
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (23-24 August only)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre