REVIEW: ‘Busu’ and ‘The Damask Drum’ by StoneCrabs and Busu Theatre, at Quay Arts

Walking to Newport’s Quay Arts Centre, however the evening was to unfold, I imagined I’d finish this review with a clarion call to Island audiences, urging them to take the plunge and see more theatre from other cultures. Upon reaching the doorway, it became clear there was no need. The good people of the Isle of Wight were way ahead of me.

A gratifyingly large and boisterous crowd had already swamped the sizeable bar area when I arrived, eager to catch this collaboration between director Franko Figueiredo’s StoneCrabs and an all-female cast of Japanese performers from Busu Theatre. Its title describes not a single tale, but a double-bill of the comical Kyogen farce Busu and the haunting, Noh-inspired ghost story The Damask Drum; the Noh and Kyogen forms developed together in fourteenth-century Japan, and are conventionally performed alongside one another.

The sudden clap of a drum drew our eyes to the cast, framed by the bar’s outside doorway in the elegant, formal pageantry of their traditional costumes and instruments. Playing, dancing and singing, they led us upstairs into the theatre, whereupon a witty comic vignette reminded us to switch off our phones – the first hint that Figueiredo and co. would not be afraid to subvert expectations with flashes of modern humour.

Then Busu began to unfold, a darkly comic story of two servants entrusted alone with a box of their master’s irresistibly delicious, but deadly poisonous, caviar.

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Photo: Mami Takahashi

Like a Greek Satyr play or the renaissance Italian Commedia Dell’Arte, Kyogen uses simple stock characters and slapstick humour, obsessed by juxtapositions of social class, of high and low, of the refined opulence of the master’s antique shop and the disruptive blundering of his servants. Sayoko Isotani, Rie Tamura and Ayako Takemura’s characterisations were pin-sharp and fantastically broad, provoking floods of laughter and having some fun with a performative tradition that is both highly stylised and joyously anarchic.

Throughout, exquisite set, costume, lighting and sound design transformed an excellent set of performances into a living painting. Dinah Mullen’s minimal use of traditional percussion conjured tension and underscored punchlines, whilst Sayoko Isotani’s costumes were controlled explosions of colour, dancing with each graceful, considered movement; almost characters in their own right.

The company’s second story seemed looser, more naturalistic, less mannered and formally stylised than Busu, at the outset. But though it began as the simple story of an old gardener’s unrequited yearning for the female lawyer he glimpses daily at her high-rise office window, The Damask Drum slowly metamorphosed into a hauntingly elegiac, formally abstract and frequently moving theatrical love poem.

Music, movement and atmospheric lighting evoked spine-tingling metaphysical flights into the spirit world, along with some unsettling use of masks to portray its ghostly inhabitants. As before, performances were masterful, this time aiming to provoke tears rather than laughter – it would be unfair to spoil the details of this intimate and surprising tale, but it packed some powerful emotional moments.

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Photo: Mami Takahashi

The brilliant Busu disco’ closed the night, in which the audience were invited to dance onstage to energetic Japanese techno and grab pictures with the cast. That might seem incongruous, but the mischievous use of modern pop-culture references throughout the evening had prepared us for it, and closing with a riotous communal dance party proved a final touch of genius – allowing for a shared catharsis in which the intense emotions of the evening were purged away in an adrenaline-fuelled sugar-rush of joy, selfies and questionable dance moves.

If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that this exceptional production played only a single night at the Quay Arts before moving on to The London Soho Theatre and Edinburgh Fringe. We can only hope Wednesday night’s rapturous reception encourages StoneCrabs and Busu Theatre to pay the Island another visit before too long.

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