Symphony M. — Carthasis in Setagaya

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Symphony M. at the Setagaya Public Theatre was an experience different to the Dairakudakan performances I had previously seen. It was headlined by the founder Akaji Maro himself and thus, unlike the other smaller pieces, was a fully fledged Dairakudakan incarnation. (When it is a piece devised and performed by company members independently it is known as a ‘Kochuten’ work.)

The venue itself created a different kind of atmosphere, being relatively large. Fortunately I was sat near the front and lost none of the intimacy. There was a set, as such, which also surprised me, though it was basically just a mobile rostrum with a mounted mirror, a huge barnacle-crusted bone-like rope that hung from the flies, and a wall that was sometimes moved around. The music was classical, as one would expect from the title, including loud and grandiose themes.

It began with Maro swaying silently for minutes on end, in a thin muslin dress, wearing a giant dusty wig. From the start and throughout he was made to look frail and ancient — though his obviously athletic physique and strength belied this. Gradually the haunting strains of Mahler pervaded the space, cut off by Maro’s sudden collapse. Then four suited clowns entered, each with his own comic idiosyncrasy; they changed Maro’s dress to a vibrant red one, switching the costumes like he were a dead corpse, recalling scenes from the recent film Okuribito.

After this the more familiar Dairakudakan male slave performers entered: men naked except for thongs and the white make-up on their skin. This time they also wore these long red ropes from their heads, dividing their bodies vertically. They first came on like alien creatures, holding balls of light, hissing chillingly. Later they grew in number, encircling Maro and whipping him. This was the main scene of violence in the work, unlike previous performances I had seen which were raw Theatre of Cruelty from start to finish, mixed with flashes of carnivalesque humour.

There was comedy too, generated by Maro and the clowns, but it was subdued compared to the campy material I had previously seen. The sight of Maro himself, though at times resembling a washed-up drag queen or Miss Havisham figure, was obviously absurd but never risible. However, menace was ubiquitous, especially in the way the clowns manipulated and moved Maro (in the same way the actor is controlled by the puppet-master director in Beckett’s Catastrophe).

Watching Ankoku Butoh one feels like one is seeing all of humanity’s rawest emotions exposed and explored. Untamed, unleashed, you exit the theatre riding on the wave of carthasis.

Symphony M.

February 19-22, at Setagaya Public Theatre

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