Mae-shite

Contributed by David Surtasky

My role is mae-shite. Lead actor of the first half, one of the grasscutters. In a traditional noh, the mae-shite and nochi-shite would be the same person, but in our production we’ve divided the role between two different actors; I think primarily in order to permit as many people as possible to have the experience.

I don’t know much about the grasscutters (the shite and tsure,) except that they’re laborers and sing a song about how miserable their lot is. They’re not talking about themselves, rather they speak in metaphor about the misery of the Taira expelled from Miyako and living a rough existence in contrast with their enviable lives in the mediaeval capital. They sing of their loss. But, somehow they’re not real to me, perhaps they’re not real to themselves.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about the waki, the monk Renshô, the warrior once known as Kumagai no Jirō Naozane who looked at the severed head of his fallen enemy and made the choice to renounce the world. Rensho seems real to me. I can more readily identify with his anguish and his choices, his direct connection to the place where he has come. He looked at Atsumori’s lifeless body and thought about his own son, and it changed him. He’s returned to the place of that change in order to offer up the only thing he can: his prayers.

It’s a bit confusing for me then, that I identify with Renshô – but that my own role feels obscure to me. Perhaps the identification with the disguised spirit of Atsumori is too close to my own heart; will I become only this spirit driven by attachment to return to this place over and over? Does the play truly help to release the spirit, or does it only keep causing Atsumori to return to the world in perpetual restlessness? Most likely it is both.

Yesterday we ran through the first half of the play with the full hayashi (musicians) for the first time. The musicians add the depth that the songs demand. It was instructive, there are weak spots in our timing, but all in all we appear to be in good condition. There are challenges for me in remembering the movement; it is slight indeed – walk out, stand, turn, walk, sit. It should be simple, there is so little of it but perhaps that simplicity makes it far too easy to forget.

Today, practice of the second half and re-enactment of Atsumori’s death. That we might all be reborn again on the same lotus leaf.

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About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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