EMILY: AN ENGLISH-LANGUAGE NOH (text by Ashley Thorpe, music by Richard Emmert, directed by Richard Emmert and Ashley Thorpe), was performed at the Handa Noh Theatre, Royal Holloway University of London on 24 and 25 May 2018.
The first surprise about Emily: An English-language noh was finding that Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette and Royal Holloway alumna whose story inspired this new work, does not figure as a character in the play. Fortunately our daytime activity, a symposium on adaptation, translation and acculturation hosted by the Centre for Asian Theatre and Dance, had underlined the point that this is not unprecedented in noh. Carol Sorgenfrei’s excellent keynote on “Intercultural Conundrums” examined some contemporary variations on Aoi no Ue, a well-known noh play by Zeami that takes as its “seed” the central character in chapter nine of The Tale of Genji. In this work, the eponymous principal wife of Genji is represented only by a folded kimono in the centre of the stage.
In Emily, the mae-shite, or protagonist for part one, is a gardener working on the estate at Royal Holloway. The main role in part two, the nochi-shite, is the spirit of Herbert Jones, the jockey who was thrown off King Edward VII’s horse, Anmer, when Davison famously stepped out on to the racecourse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. It is noticeable that both leading characters are men, and both are justified in terms of their connection with Emily. Thorpe relates in the programme note, “Writing Emily,” that he was conscious of working with the story as a male author, and aimed to highlight that “the play was being written from a male perspective, and one that did not set out to judge anyone....” Indeed, the rest of the casting balances the masculinity of these two protagonists. The waki, or counterpart to the main characters, a “member of the laity” who comes to the College to visit the chapel in its Founders’ Building, is not assigned a gender in the script, but in this initial production is cast and convincingly portrayed by Silje Lund as a devoted young woman. The ji chorus that takes up and amplifies the telling of the story at appropriate points is all-female.
Throughout the play, it is impressive how Thorpe and Emmert have transferred the essence of noh into something easily accessible to their cast and audience at Royal Holloway, beginning with the michiyuki, a journey towards the place where the action of the play is set, listing epithets and linking places of literary and historical importance. The opening of Emily actually leads us right to the vicinity of the Handa Noh Theatre, the venue for the performance. Presently the waki encounters a gardener, whom she asks for directions: the mae-shite’s traditional mask and costume, as well as Shiori Yamamoto’s sensitive interpretation of the role, suggest something mysterious, even ethereal, about the character. After explaining how to reach the chapel, the gardener goes on to talk about the new building named after Davison, stressing how important it is commemorate her. Thorpe’s script adopts the noh convention of weaving into the text quotations which may be familiar to the audience, and so enable them to take part in creating the mood of the play through their individual responses. Contemporary resources about the suffragette movement are frequently cited, and there are also references to The Knight’s Tale (the story of another “Emelye”) by Chaucer, whose work Davison admired as a literature student. As in contemporary noh theatres in Japan, the programme provides the script with notes to guide the audience. It comes to mind that most, perhaps all of the works quoted must be held nearby in the Davison Building – the College library.
The ai-kyōgen, an interlude performed by kyogen actors interacting with the waki to help advance the story in noh, is another example of successful acculturation in Emily. Here the waki, who becomes disorientated when the mae-shite unaccountably disappears, gets to meet two Royal Holloway students – it was amusing to learn from one of our hosts that these were quite recognisable types within the College. The female student who appears first talks intensely about her research on Davison from a feminist perspective. She dwells on the view of austere prison conditions and forcible feeding as torture, and echoes more insistently the gardener’s idea that her heroine - martyr to the cause of women’s suffrage - should be commemorated at the College. When a male student who professes himself “something of an expert” on Davison joins them, questioning the relevance of the suffragette movement and equating their militancy with terrorism, sparks begin to fly in a way that proves highly entertaining for its audience. Their debate is delivered in a formalised speech that is true to the original form, but is one aspect that might be quite difficult to process for those less familiar with noh and kyōgen. Given that the language of such interludes is much more colloquial than in the noh proper and is intended to make the content easier to understand, it might work better to make the delivery of the students’ discussion more natural, a better match for the twenty-first century fashion of their costumes – though that would mean missing the striking percussive effect when the two speak in unison at the end.
In the second part of the play, Ashley Thorpe takes to the stage, following the almost automatic expectation of those who conceived the aesthetics of noh that playwrights will also be actors. His nochi-shiterole gives a voice to Herbert Jones, who was unconscious for many days after falling from Anmer, and whose suicide, after the death of his wife almost forty years later in 1951, has sometimes been attributed to possession by Davison’s restless ghost. Thorpe writes in his note that in this much-analysed film footage of the 1913 Epsom Derby, he found “something about the pacing of the film that seemed to suit the jo-ha-kyū structure” characteristic of noh. (This, alongside evidence of Davison’s interest in Japanese society, convinced him that her story would lend itself to dramatization in the form.)
While the waki is praying in the chapel at twilight, she is startled by someone moving through the shadows. The nochi-shite, whose costume aptly combines a strong element of traditional attire for ghosts in the noh with a black riding hat, and whose mask has been specially carved for the production by Kitazawa Hideta, reveals his identity. He declares that he did not know and was not haunted by Emily while he was alive, yet their spirits have become entwined. As he relives the anticipation of the race and evokes the atmosphere at the beginning through movement, the nochi-shite’s lines home in on key developments in the depiction of the actions that happened so fast on the track. Lines spoken by the chorus add to both the detail and the intensity of the narrative. The tension mounts, leading into an energetic and arresting climax when the chorus describes Emily’s collision with the horse. Then, suddenly, “all lie motionless” and the audience, with the characters, are left to take in what has happened.
A week or so after Emily, a discussion on performative commemorations of World War One events at another symposium turned to the question of whether attempts at authentic re-enactment might end up being too emotionally raw to serve their purpose well. Might not a different kind of performance with greater alterity work better? I think Emily offered this recommended alterity in several ways. The choice of noh, a form quite removed from the time and place of the original events, as a means of expression for this story, was appropriate because its formality of structure could both contain and highlight the drama of the closing moments. It also allowed the audience to stop and think about new perspectives on the events and to understand why, despite the physical absence of Davison from the stage, it was undoubtedly remembering and honouring Emily.
Helen Parker is Lecturer in Japanese at the University of Edinburgh and author of Progressive Traditions: An Illustrated Study of Plot Repetition in Traditional Japanese Theatre (Brill).