Chance Decides at The Italian Restaurant

A breathtaking Noh play comes to the George Town Festival. Don’t miss it.

Naohiko Umewaka, writer and director of The Italian Restaurant.

The head turns. The gaze is unerring, immovable yet expressive. And in its turn the audience offers back its gaze, transfixed by a gesture, a precise movement, waiting for the declamatory words. But it is not a man’s face we see. The lights glint on a golden mask worn by a Noh actor. The expression appears implacably fierce, almost sinister, demonic even. The mask is called yakan (野干), named after the field fox, representing a malevolent spirit residing inside a rock, cautious and cunning.

And then the actor (shite) speaks, introducing himself as a character. He is, to all appearances, a product of the imagination, written in a distilled script. Yet, at the same time, he speaks directly of the man behind the mask, to the self:

I am a master of the Japanese classical theatre called Noh. I have been doing Noh for half a century. The strange thing is that the theatrical form of Noh theatre started to contaminate my daily life … it steps over the boundary between theatre and daily life. Both fiction and non-fiction invade me. My life has become both, or neither.

The words are spoken by the incongruously named Mary Miyagi (played by Chee Sek Thim). But they refer to his avatar, Naohiko Umewaka, a grand master of the traditional Japanese Noh (能) theatre, and also a radical innovator of this age-old form. The lines from the play are at the same time a description of his life. The play holds both these paradoxical threads in its hand.

Historically, Noh is a form of theatre involving narrative, music, dance and drama, originating in fourteenth-century Japan, though its roots go even further back – drawing on ritual celebrations, popular entertainments, traditional dances and courtly music. Noh is said to be the oldest surviving theatre tradition still in practice today. The scholar Royall Tyler calls it “one of the great achievements of civilisation”. In classical productions the movement is slow, though deceptively so, the language is poetic, the tone is quiet, and the costumes are rich and heavy. Plots are usually drawn from legend, history, literature and notable events. Themes often relate to dreams, supernatural worlds, ghosts and spirits.

Tsukioka Kōgyo, Dōjōji (道成寺), painting on silk, 1899.

This month Umewaka brings his modern Noh production, The Italian Restaurant, to the George Town Festival. Some of those classical elements are present – not least the all-seeing mask. But this is a thoroughly contemporary Noh play, self-consciously described as an existential exploration of individual human existence seemingly devoid of meaning or purpose. And therein lies another apparent paradox.

Umewaka seems an unlikely iconoclast. He is after all the scion of one of the most distinguished Noh families. Their lineage goes back – without a break – for at least six hundred years. According to Kanmon gyoki, a Muromachi era court diary, an Umewaka performed Noh at the Sentō imperial palace in 1416. The family scrupulously maintained the katazuke, the secretive choreographic manuals for main roles handed down through the generations. Perhaps his most celebrated forebear was Minoru Umewaka, a master performer of the late Edo and early Meiji periods. He re-established Noh in the modern era when it was imperilled, and was the teacher of the painter Tsukioka Kōgyo and the scholar Ernest Fenollosa, who, together with Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats, was most responsible for introducing Noh to the West. Naohiko’s own father, Naoyoshi Umewaka, was a legendary performer and teacher.

Over a long career, Naohiko Umewaka has mastered this complicated art – the seminal relationship between the principles of physical discipline and the unique choreographic forms: posture and stylised movement. He is immersed in the inner, spiritual domain, an esoteric world that resides behind the mask. And he is a leading scholar of the “inner world of Noh”, the title of his doctoral thesis.1 Umewaka may seem an improbable subversive. But that is precisely what The Italian Restaurant is: a radical piece of theatre-making for our times. And perhaps, too, the disruption stems from his own deliberate – almost wilful, self-mocking – denial of his own mastery that allows him to transcend expectations and boundaries. “I’ve been in Noh theatre for more than half a century now, but I still don’t know what it is,” Umewaka says gnomically.

Aida Redza in The Italian Restaurant.

Mislina Mustaffa, Chee Sek Thim and Hardy Shafii in The Italian Restaurant.

The story The Italian Restaurant, if that is what it is, emerges from a chance meeting of a woman and a man in a restaurant. Destinies are forged and hearts are entwined. But in this world of illusion and dreams, nothing is what it seems. Using food as a metaphor for (im)mortality, of life and death, the restaurant has burned down, and all the characters are dead spirits, souls interacting in limbo. The restaurant’s premises keep shifting – from an eating room to a pedestrian walk, from an apartment to a bedroom – while the ghosts tell their stories. And as in much Noh drama, it is the death of the main character that signals the play’s beginning. In this surreal after-life, the isolated identity of the individual is transcended. The play then enters and explores the totality of what the present (un)consciously inherits from the past, the interplay across boundaries.

“I had become the boundary itself.” Naohiko Umewaka.

Productions of The Italian Restaurant have already been presented to great acclaim in the Philippines, Turkey, Lebanon and, appropriately, Italy. The Penang revival owes much to the commitment of Aida Redza, a revered and innovative performer and choreographer in her own right, and a leading light behind Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio. Umewaka and Aida first worked together 20 ago in Lear, Ong Keng Sen’s reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s masterwork. “I had to learn the basics of Noh in order to perform the shadow of the mother character that Naohiko was playing,” says Aida. (Umekawa’s interpretation of Lear’s character remains in his repertoire to this day.)

The enormous challenge, of course, lies in assimilating a new cast into the aesthetics and sensibilities of a modern Noh play. Aida met with Umewaka again in Japan last year, and that is when the idea of reviving The Italian Restaurant was born. Finely attuned to the inner resonances between superficially different performing traditions, Aida focuses on a subtle – yet vital, life-giving – link between Noh and her own performance practice.

Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio and ZXC Theatre Troupe present

The Italian Restaurant
Written and directed by Naohiko Umewaka

Aida Redza, Chee Sek Thim, Hardy Shafii, Mislina Mustaffa and Marina Tan

Sharifah Aryana and Siew Yong Koay

Dates: August 26 at 3.00pm and 8.30pm | August 27 at 8.30pm
Venue: Loft 29 @ Gat Lebuh Gereja, George Town
Tickets: RM75, RM65 and RM25 (discounts)
Contact: +604 261 6308 | +6016 490 5878

Supported by
Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur | Japan–Malaysia 60th Anniversary Diplomatic Relations | Gerakbudaya Bookshop Penang | Sinkeh | Luma | Gurney Paragon | Euphoria Penang

Breath. “In Noh, breathing and respiration are very important to the use of the voice and the choreography,” she says. This is made explicit in the play. The Samurai (Hardy Shafii) calls for silence as he meditates: “This breathing technique enables you to achieve enlightenment.” And in a mocking tone, he patiently explains to his cynical interrogator, the restaurant owner (Mislina Mustaffa), the way language captures the material and immaterial essence of breathing: “Do you know how to write breathing in Japanese Kanji? It is a perfect combination of two Kanji characters … one is self … the other is heart.” As Aida notes, there are direct analogies here with her own Malay traditions of performance: “It’s all about dominating the breath, the wind, being entranced by it – the concept of masuk angin – akin to a state of shamanic power.”2

It is perhaps part of the very elusiveness of Noh that neither of the principals plays a named character in The Italian Restaurant. Umewaka never appears on stage – but the words, the alter ego of Mary Miyagi, the exact movements, they all belong to him. Mary Miyagi asks the audience directly: “Can you imagine what it’s like to be me?” As we contemplate the mask we are, at the same time, compelled to contemplate the man.

The leading female character is Mitsuko Teshigawara (Marina Tan), dining companion, lover and seer. Like the others, she lives between life and death. She thinks of a ghost that “lives behind my eyelid. You know, just before you fall asleep, closing your eyes then darkness falls, and yet you start to see something, what appeared to be an amoeba-like light turns into a human face.” But Mitsuko is not a singular being. She inhabits multiple beings, like all of us. Aida plays the heart of Mitsuko – moving and silent – the ethereal embodiment of suffering, of her spirit longing for a proper death. It’s a death that can never come.

Theatre is a paradoxical art. Its power lies in traversing boundaries, of space and of time. The very particular world of Noh probes and germinates in this existential oscillation: between internal and external, between sleep and wakefulness, between man and woman, between the abstract and the bodily, between the illusion of theatre and daily reality, and ultimately between life and death. This dialectic resides inside the actor, inside his very being. The mask turns again towards us. And the freely wandering gaze of the spectator is returned. The condition that marks the possibility of the performance now exists: “Can you imagine …?” And, answering his own question, Umewaka/Mary Miyagi ponders, enigmatically, “Maybe … I had become the boundary itself.” The mask has spoken. Everything eludes us. Perhaps there can be no redemption.

The Italian Restaurant is presented by Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio and ZXC Theatre Troupe as part of the TradeWinds Arts Exchange, a project to renew and revitalise cross-cultural relationships through performing arts exchanges between Penang and Japan. TradeWinds has organised masterclasses in Noh drama conducted by Naohiko Umewaka, and will present a mixed-media dance performance Entranced: An Evening with a Ghost at DiverseCity KL International Arts Festival 2017.

1 Naohiko Umewaka, “The Inner World of the Noh”, PhD thesis, Royal Holloway, University of London, 1994.
2 Marco Ferrarese, “Japan’s Noh theater breathes new life in Malaysia”, Nikkei Asian Review, 3 June 2017.

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