Cordelia, Theatre of Yugen

Cordelia is a Noh adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear presented by Theatre of Yugen at NOHspace. The play is a combination of old and new. It draws its structure and performance elements from the tradition of Noh and its source text from Shakespeare, both centuries old. But the actual text by Erik Ehn, music by Suki O’Kane and production directed by Jubilith Moore are wholly contemporary. They draw heavily from the traditional sources, but are in no way limited by them. Enh’s text is a rearrangement of lines from the original Shakespeare but focused on the point of view of Cordelia (King Lear’s youngest daughter) minimized to fit within the constraints of Noh. Polly Moller performs on standard concert and bass flutes and a bagpipe chanter, but expertly invokes the attacks, pitch bends and timbral shifts of traditional Japanese music. Sheila Berotti plays the tradition role of the chorus, but as a single voice with a shruti box (a drone instrument usually found in Indian classical music). The main element of the set, a bridge that folds into to descending segments, seems very contemporary and industrial – but it is in fact an adaptation of the traditional hashigakari from Noh theater.

In the first act, Cordelia (played by Moore) appears as a member of a royal court and recounts her refusal to flatter her father, the king, with words, which leads to her being disowned and exiled. In the second act, she returns in the form of a warrior, reflecting her return to England at the end of the play in an attempt to save her father that ultimately ends tragically. In the interlude, we meet the Fool (played by Lluis Valls), who both recites lines from the original play and provides a synopsis of the story. He serves as a comic counterpoint, and as a practical guide for those either unfamiliar with the original King Lear or new to structure of Noh theater. (One particularly fun moment was when he relates the marriages of Cordelia’s sisters, he pauses with a slight look and sound of disgust for the rather creepy Duke of Cornwall.)

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Overall the elements of the performance, the music, the set design, the text, the movement all have a very minimalist quality. There is a lot of empty space in the slow and deliberate movements of Moore as Cordelia and chanting of the text. Similarly, the music is very sparse. The flute lines are composed from small sets of notes that explore timbre, dynamics and abrupt rhythmic changes. The silence between the flute, text and motion is occasionally punctuated by loud hits on the snare drum (performed by Anna Wray). The space left me ample opportunity to escape from the narrative of the play and instead focus on specific details, such as qualities of the flute performance, the text on wall of the set, the occasional harmonic swells of the shruti box, or details of the lighting.

The main exception to the overall minimalism was the costume design by Risa Dye. Cordelia’s two costumes are both quite elaborate. They combine the multiple layers often found in Noh costumes with rather ornate and highly textured elements reminiscent of Elizabethan England (at least as seen in paintings from the time). The costume of the Fool was something else again, a hooded suit covered entirely in text (taken from another play by Ehn). It helped to emphasize the character of the Fool as a “word artist”, and also contribute to his more frenetic character in contrast to the rest of the performance.

The words were also present on the wall of the set (designed by Joshua McDermott). The wall was inspired by memorial walls, in particular from the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s. Phases from Ehn’s plays were used in place of names. In addition to its direct meaning, the wall evoked for me a sense of urban space with graffiti, which is central in my own visual work.

It is interesting to reflect on how easily the minimalist and non-linear elements of Noh seem to translate into a contemporary work of art, and also provide opportunity for reflection and meditation. At the same time, the structure provides enough space for contemporary visual and musical elements to poke through. As such, it provides some ideas and inspiration for future work.

Cordelia continues with additional performances at Theatre of Yugen tonight (May 5) through Saturday May 7.

[All photos in this article courtesy of Theatre of Yugen.]