Tokushima City, Japan
December 18 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

THIS IS ONE musical which needs no introduction to those of us from a certain age group. Even if you haven’t been lucky enough to see a live production, it’s a fair bet that anyone will be able to hum snatches of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, or at the very least knows the storyline.

Not so in Japan. But then, Shiki Theatre Company’s reinterpretation of the well-worn-but-always-fresh piece is anything but familiar. Think Western musical crossed with Kabuki theatrics and Butoh dance styling, add in a risk-taking set and cross the rock score with Eastern instruments, and you start to get the idea.

It’s an experience from start to finish. Even from my cheap seat up the back I was leaning forward, mouth agape and brain cheering. There are over 35 performers who run, jump, fall, sing and sway continuously – well okay, it’s a musical. But it’s the way they move which is mesmerising. While in Western musicals dancers seem often to focus on energy, the cast of this musical didn’t seem to dance so much as flow, moving their bodies, hands and faces into visual patterns which underlined the emotive content. For example when Jesus was being mobbed by the plebs, he seemed to be surrounded by a sea of desperate hands which threatened to engulf him. Effective use was made of props like simple bamboo sticks which were hurled, fought with or patterned into ‘cages’.

Strengthening the link with Kabuki and Butoh, the faces of the performers were painted white. Leads were even more heavily made up, their faces resembling masks (and in a few cases, with actual masks and prostheses). The rest of the costuming was largely in neutral colours, with bared flesh as per Butoh tradition and primary colour coding (red for Simon, black for Judas) to reflect character.

I couldn’t pin down what period the costumes evoked. The closest I can get to describing it is that it was a blend of rock and roll, ancient Roman and Japanese feudal era – a mix which shouldn’t work but did, admirably. Pilate was an actual jaded mandarin, a great in-joke, and Herod, one of the few brightly dressed characters, was delicious as a Japanese daimyo with his two head-bobbing, back-to-front geisha. When it comes to taking the mickey out of their own culture, the Japanese do it with a great deal of comedy and grace.

The stage design was almost another character in itself. It was made up of two components: a raised rectangular wooden platform which sat on the stage proper, reminiscent of the formal space of a Noh theatre. Behind it were five smaller wooden platforms on trolleys which could be raised and lowered on racks to form raised surfaces and sharp angles, off which performers rolled, ran and jumped. These were moved around by grey-swathed figures who worked in the background the whole time and didn’t hide their presence but never took part in the dramatic action – reminiscent of the ‘kuroko’ helpers of Kabuki or Noh theatre. The formal entry of the figures signalled the start of the story.

The one thing that might have enhanced the experience for me was if the music had been played live. Minor quibble – this was after all a touring production, only one show in context of Shiki Theatre’s mind-blowing 3,000 performances per year (and that’s only in Japan). Lloyd Webber’s music was used, of course, or it wouldn’t have been Jesus Christ Superstar. But harmonising with the electric guitars were traditional Japanese instruments, strings and drums, which lent a subtler tone to the music.

Of course, all the words were sung in Japanese. I can testify that Mary Magdalene’s ‘I don’t know how to love him’ sung in Japanese lent a haunting, ethereal quality which was intensely moving, and ditto for my personal favourite, ‘Gethsemane’. The guy playing Jesus (and here I apologise; my illiteracy in Japanese prevents me from naming any names) was statuesque and had a powerful voice, which meant he could sing with the minimum of chest movement – he made an eerily still, calm Jesus.

The mask-like makeup, costumes, movement and the set moved around by shadowy figures combined to take one of my favourite musicals to a deeper level of meaning. To me, the piece seemed to be a conscious questioning, a feeling that what was being presented was not quite real, but an artifice. The masks seemed to suggest that the actors and the characters they played were not acting of their own free will, but puppets in a larger historical canvas (or possibly influenced by a higher power). It was an interpretation that suited the narrative and subject matter well.

All in all, this is an interpretation of Jesus Christ Superstar that is both breathtaking in its theatricality and subtle in its interpretation. And since Shiki Theatre has been performing this musical in various revivals since 1973, maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to see it again.