“What if Romeo and Juliet survived?” With A Night At The Kabuki being set to the music of Queen, you might be forgiven for thinking we are in & Juliet territory, which has a similar premise to the musical soundtrack of songs written by Max Martin.
Here, though, matters are set in 12th century Japan, and the two warring families of Montague and Capulet have become samurai warriors Taira (the pleasure, money and fame seekers) and Minamoto (the religious and nameless).
When Juliet (young, Suzu Hirose; old, Takayo Matsu) climbs over the wall to join the Taira Christmas festivities, she and Romeo (young, Jun Shison; old, Takaya Kamikawa) “meet cute” and so the move into the bare bones of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet begins.
In Hideki Noda’s reimagined plot, there are funny lines, attempts to change destiny, and some truly impressive set and sound design. The music is taken from Queen’s A Night At The Opera album; the idea from singer Freddie Mercury’s love of Japanese culture.
With dialogue translated into English surtitles, mime, intrusions from the modern world (selfie sticks, mobile phones, social media hashtags) and a second half which surmises a life beyond the double suicide and family truce.
The songs – mainly “Love of My Life” which acts as a motif for both pairs of Romeo/Juliet, young and old, and “Bohemian Rhapsody”, of which snatches appear during moments of war or destruction of human life – fit well.
Perhaps more use of other tracks other than snatches of intro, word, guitar or drumbeat might have worked, but I enjoyed “Seaside Rendezvous” highlighting Juliet’s first rebellion (going swimming).
At one moment you can be roaring with laughter, at another reeling from a dark turn of events. By the closing scenes, where in true operatic style the ending is both dramatic and intense (and more than a little reminiscent of current events in Ukraine), you may have a tear or two.
There are clever subversions of the original play: Mercutio becomes Mercury (the actor Kazushiga Komatsu turns up later as “Platinum, his twin brother, like the credit card”; the nurse (Hideki Noda) gains the name of Uba to enable Uber puns.
The Lord of Taira (with his disturbing Joker make-up) and Romeo’s Messenger are played by the same actor, Naoto Takemaka; Juliet’s power-hungry brother and the peace-seeking Monk are both played by Satoshi Hashimoto.
The word Kabuki roughly translates as opera, with the dance-drama form being traditionally male only (despite its roots being in female perfornance). It is known for being playful and glamorous: a description which could also apply to the Mercury era of Queen.
With revolving doors, repeated scenes, props including hospital beds, silks, coins, umbrellas, balloons, plates and a rope ladder, A Night At The Kabuki is unflinchingly creative and colourful.
Showing for just three performances in London, this stunning production will delight audiences whether you are there for the Bard, the music, or the legend of samurai.
A Night At The Kabuki is playing at Sadler’s Wells until 24 September. Details here.
Image credit: Alex Brenner