Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Spitalfields, Sumidagawa, Sound

Christchurch Spitalfields: I can't think of a more brilliant and imposing location for a theatrical production.

 I've wanted to see something there for years. But, when I went there to see my first London Noh - Sumidagawa in double bill with Britten's Curlew River - last Friday (after I'd got over the excitement of actually being inside it, having walked past so many times) I realised that it's only a brilliant location if the church itself has a leading role in the play. My experience of the play was interesting but strange. The church altered the play much more dramatically than I was expecting, so that it became almost unrecognisable from the noh I've studied and loved this past year. And it was almost all because of Sound.

The inside of any big church would have been a good five times as high as a normal enclosed noh stage's roof: Hawksmoor's cathedral-like masterpiece was even higher. A noh stage is its own special contained space, predictably the same everywhere - a roofed, pillared building 6 metres square, with a walkway extending diagonally from back stage right:

 In some of the bigger venues in Japan, the noh stage is built as a separate entity within an existing 'normal-shaped' auditorium. At the National Noh Theatre, the noh stage looks like a giant set piece for some huge production or other:

To look at, the organisers had done a brilliant job creating a noh-friendly playing space - raised, closed off at the back and one side, with an entrance that functioned pretty well as a bridgeway. But there wasn't much they could do about the echo. In a church, sound bounces off stone like it's playing a very energetic kids' ball game:

On a noh stage, noises sink - into the polished cypress floor and solid back of the stage, and into the close layered tiling of the roof. Sounds under a lower part of that roof, where the drummers and flautist sit, sound quieter and disappear faster - under the high part, louder. The only reverberant sound happens on the pretty rare occasions when the actor deliberately stamps as part of a dance - a deep but contained sound created by huge urns under the floor. But even that fades after about a second. At Christchurch, the 'hit' sounds (stamps and drums) became even more eerie and exciting than they usually are. They sounded...and sounded...and sounded. But the voice of the main actor - always quieter anyway because there is a wooden mask between between him and the audience, but full of richness and depth - was often lost behind them.

It was brilliant to be able to see a noh play in London, in a church I'd always wanted to be inside. But for me, the relationship between the music and the voices, interesting though it was, was just too different to how it 'should' sound for me to get used to it in the just over an hour in which the play ran. I heard afterwards that the feeling was even more pronounced for the actors themselves: I think they were trying to compensate for the longer, more confusing reverberation by going more slowly. But since there is so much microtonal vibrato in a noh voice (which you need on a noh stage to liven up the rather dead acoustic, or, when the stage is outside, to stop the voice from disappearing off into the distance) it just meant that Christchurch's walls and floor and curlicues, and roof, had even MORE fun. Gah!

So, I was all set to start hating the church for what it had done to the noh. But then Curlew River started. Britten was heavily inspired by Sumidagawa when he wrote the opera - the narrative is almost exactly the same - but the whole thing (and especially this production with its busy staging and relatively naturalistic acting) plays very much from a western tradition. A line of men file onto the stage at the beginning, singing a latin hymn in unison. And it was utterly beautiful (as was much of the rest of the opera, musically). I finally realised why its's so important for choral voices to have such a pure, bell-like quality. The church does the rest, whether you like it or not.

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