In April 1975, Queen toured Japan for the first time. It was six months before the release of the band’s album A Night at the Opera and they were met by rapturous fans, reportedly in their thousands, at Haneda airport in Tokyo. Their arrival is still celebrated with an annual “Queen Day” in Japan.
More than four decades later, the band – and that album, including their signature tune Bohemian Rhapsody – have inspired an eccentric and ambitious theatrical production, A Night at the Kabuki, which sets their rock sounds against Japanese history and Shakespearean tragedy. First staged in Japan in 2019, the show arrives at Sadler’s Wells in London this month.
It is directed by Hideki Noda, who has written more than 50 plays and is also an actor and artistic director of Tokyo Metropolitan theatre, where we meet in a back office. A Night at the Kabuki boldly sets the old against the new; there are lavish period kimonos and samurai swords alongside selfie sticks, fashion magazines and a sea of balloons in a show with plenty of kitsch and comedy. There is glamour too from four actors who are national megastars: Takako Matsu is a pop singer who voiced Elsa in the Japanese version of Frozen; Takaya Kamikawa is a lead in CSI: Crime Scene Talks; Suzu Hirose is a young, award-winning film and TV actor classed as the most promising of her generation; while Jun Shison is a global brand ambassador for Gucci.
Queen’s guitarist Brian May has spoken about the inherent theatricality of the album’s songs but Noda wasn’t so sure about the project when he was approached with the proposition. He was already working on another idea, exploring the aftermath of Romeo and Juliet, particularly on the play’s call for an end to war and enmity. After the dead lovers are found, “of course I think [the families] stop fighting”, says Noda, “but what happens in a week, a month, a year? If the issues between the two clans remain, they are not necessarily going to go away because these two lovers have died.”
He couldn’t at first find a way to combine this idea with Queen’s songs – until he went back and listened to the lyrics, thinking: “Maybe, by some miracle, I can use the album as part of this production.” He soon found echoes of love and war, not least in Bohemian Rhapsody: “I killed a man” is used in relation to Romeo’s fight with Tybalt. Queen’s song ’39 covers the idea of homecoming, which he took out of its science fiction context and applied to men’s return from war, and there was a bank of romantic songs too, such as Love of My Life, that were a good fit for the story.
The production uses every song from Queen’s album. The show’s sound designer, Marihiko Hara, speaks of how the score uses elements from that recording never heard before now, such as an instrumental version of Love of My Life. Hara has isolated certain aspects such as the synthesiser from The Prophet’s Song, May’s guitar solo from Death on Two Legs and drumming from ’39; these sounds, for Hara, resemble the screech of seagulls or skittering sounds of deer, and have been twinned with significant scenes in the play, or sometimes run alongside the dialogue.
Noda’s play is set not in Verona but in 12th-century Japan, at the beginning of the samurai era, where the Houses of Montague and Capulet find a parallel in the warring Minamoto and Taira clans. A second act jumps in time to mark a dark chapter of 20th-century history when Japanese troops in the Soviet Union were interned to work in labour camps in Siberia as prisoners of war, and where a significant proportion died.
This aspect of the play contains great trauma and tragedy. For Noda it is a wartime reckoning that Japan is working through, often on the stage. “I was born in Nagasaki 10 years after the end of the second world war so I know about the aftermath. So many soldiers died [in Siberia] but those who came back to Japan didn’t want to say what happened to them. My father only talked [about his wartime experience] when he was drunk. Then, he would say his dead friends’ names – there were so many and I still remember them. They were not killed in battle but from either starvation [on the battlefield] or from diseases like malaria. We couldn’t talk about these things because we had lost the war – that’s very important. We couldn’t talk about our own tragedy, not even the atomic bombs. Only recently have we begun to talk.”
The production has a deliberate mutability of tone that takes the action from tragedy to slapstick, then back to conflict and death with reflections on time, love and unreliable memory. Noda himself plays Juliet’s nurse, Uba, wearing a bobbed white wig and a woman’s kimono (he repeatedly appears as gender-reversed characters in his plays). The comedy and satire undercut the central romance – the famous balcony scene, for example, becomes almost absurd with the young Juliet being advised: “Don’t throw yourself at him.” Romeo and Juliet only have a few days of love in Shakespeare’s play, the script reminds us, and in Noda’s production the pair even come back as older, wiser advisers trying to rescue their younger selves, 30 years on.
The play’s melange of influences is not surprising for a director with a history of formal hybridity – there were aspects of noh in The Diver and manga in The Bee, both staged at Soho theatre with Kathryn Hunter in the cast. His version of Much Ado About Nothing transposed the court to a sumo wrestling ring.
A Night at the Kabuki incorporates some elements of kabuki, a tradition dating to the early 17th century. There is linguistic virtuosity including puns and a great sense of spectacle, with sumptuous period costumes, beautiful sets and a sea of movement. The show gives the illusion of a production even larger than its cast of 26.
There is subversion and bawdiness too, in keeping with the essence of kabuki, which arose as the antithesis of the sobriety and spirituality in noh theatre – historically the sole preserve of aristocratic audiences. Kabuki was originally performed by women with links to the sex trade and it was only when women were banned from performing that male actors took to playing the female parts. It is a highly stylised form of theatre, still immensely popular in Japan, and characteristically raucous, with song, dance, mime, adrenaline-fuelled fights and audience interaction. At contemporary theatre shows in Japan, spectators generally do not clap in the interval but the kabuki audience is encouraged to talk back at certain moments. Beginning at 11am, a kabuki show is performed over several hours or even an entire day, with actors speaking directly to viewers who in turn shout out names of the actors as they appear.
It is a little different now, in the aftermath of the Covid lockdowns (in Japan the closures were far shorter than UK theatre shutdowns). At Super Kabuki, a show I attend in the vast Shinbashi Enbujo theatre, there is no eating or shouting but we are encouraged to switch on the lights of our mobile phones and clap at key moments in the drama. The auditorium is enormous, seating 2,000 with a massive stage and a ramp called the flower road (hanamichi) through which the actors enter and exit wearing traditional kimonos, wigs and powdered faces. But these medieval-era characters – court nobles, samurai and commoners – share the stage with an AI actor on screen and a well-known virtual manga character called Miku Hatsune, who has a flame of blue hair and is masterfully spliced into the live action. It looks both like an ancient epic and a sophisticated video game in one. Technology is increasingly being twinned in this way, with collectives such as TeamLab giving kabuki’s old stories a new edge.
Noda speaks of the imaginative potential of splicing and mixing influences, genres and forms. Culture is made from the creative “chaos” of combining different elements in theatre, he says. “Something new can be born in it.”
A Night at the Kabuki is at Sadler’s Wells, London, 22-24 September.
Arifa Akbar’s trip to Japan was paid for by the theatre company Noda Map.