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Sumida River in Sign Language

Feature

Now in its third edition, the bi-annual Noh Reimagined festival returns as part of Kings Place’s Nature Unwrapped series in June 2020. One of the highlights is a 21st century makeover of the famous play ‘Sumida River’, which is performed by deaf actors.

Noh Reimagined 2020 – Spirits of Flowers explores how man exists within and as part of the natural world. In Japan, the worship of kami (deity spirits) encompass the spirits of flowers and plants that appear in many Noh stories.

Sumida River is a classic Japanese Noh play written by Kanze Motomasa (c.1401 – 1432) and performed as part of Noh Reimagined 2020.  The play has inspired Japanese and Western artists through the ages, from Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s puppet play Futago Sumidagawa (1720) to Benjamin Britten’s opera Curlew River (1964).

In this special production by What More? Productions, Sumida River has been given a 21st century makeover, mixing in British sign language used by deaf performers to create a drama of gestural intensity. Sumida River in Sign Language builds bridges between two eras, two cultures, two cities, two rivers. As environmental awareness climbs up the political agenda, the production suggests our failure to hear the song of the river and the plight of the natural world.

The Story

A mother, mad with grief, arrives at Sumida River in Musashi province looking for her son kidnapped by child slave traders. As the Ferryman takes her across the water in his boat, they see a gathering of mourners on the opposite shore attending a memorial service for a boy who perished by the river a year previously. This turns out to be the woman’s missing son and during her lament and invocation to Buddha, his ghost appears from out the grassy burial mound before vanishing with the dawn.

The Costumes

The costumes are designed by Sophie Ruth Donaldson and strongly emphasise the natural world of the river and the wild regions the Mother has travelled through. Her kimono has lost its Kyoto allure and has become vegetal, with a growth of bamboo on her rain hat.

 

The Mound

The Mound is designed by Harriott Knuckles and features scattered cherry blossoms and births a ghost.


© Harriott Knuckles

The Creative Team

Director Naohiko Umewaka trained with his father Naoyoshi Umewaka, appearing in his first Noh role at the age of nine. Umewaka has composed, choreographed, and directed new Noh plays including The Baptism of Jesus, performed before Pope John Paul II in the Vatican Palace on Christmas Eve 1988. In addition to numerous roles in productions staged by the Umewaka theatre troupe, Naohiko Umewaka appeared as Emperor Hirohito in the 1995 film Hiroshima.

Deaf artist Chisato Minamimura plays the lead role of Mother. Her recent work includes Scored in Silence, a performance with digital animations exploring the experience of deaf survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945.

Deaf performer Alex Nowak plays the role of Ferryman. He uses both speech and British Sign Language and has worked extensively in film and theatre. He co-founded the Matara Deaf Film and Arts Festival in Sri Lanka and also signs in Sri Lankan.

Percussionist Joji Hirota’s career spans more than 30 years and 10 solo albums. Born in Hokkaido, Japan, he travelled to Europe and joined The Lindsay Kemp Dance Company in 1976, writing and performing music for the company’s production of Onnagata which won a Time Out Award. Hirota also founded his own company Joji Hirota and Taiko Drummers to perform Japanese traditional and contemporary Taiko music worldwide.

Costume designer and maker Sophie Ruth Donaldson has worked both in the UK and internationally for the past 10 years. Initially designing for theatre, dance, opera, film and TV, she now specialises in costume for contemporary dance and performance. In 2015 her work was chosen to be exhibited at The Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design & Space. sophieruthdonaldson.com

Prop-maker and knitter Harriott Knuckles worked as a set builder but now focuses on smaller scale textile pieces and props. Winner of Waltham Forest’s 2018 Art Road Show for a giant-sized human heart made from assorted materials, she went on to create a larger-than-life human brain for the Alzheimer’s Society.  She has worked for What More? Productions, making props for the Knitting Pattern play.

What More? Productions was founded by Deborah Nash in 2016 to create highly visual theatre connecting history and ritual with the present day. The Knitting Pattern play (Theatre503, 2017) centered on the activity of knitting to dramatise the unravelling of traditional hierarchies through the lives of an aristocrat and a cross-dressing spy during the French Revolution. whatmoreproductions.co.uk

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