Interview: Ghost and love story- ancient, contemporary, mythic, mystical – Yukio Mishima’s The Lady Aoi – staged by Cape Town’s Abrahamse & Meyer Productions

What: The Lady Aoi by Yukio Mishima- staged by Cape Town theatre company, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions- on at Artscape, Cape Town – November/December 2021
For info about the production: http://:

Yukio Mishima’s ghostly love story, The Lady Aoi, adapted from a Japanese Noh play, was written in 1954. In 2014, Cape Town theatre company, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, staged the play in the USA at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival. The festival’s director David Kaplan decided to curate the 2014 edition around the theme of Tennessee Williams and his writer friends, Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer volunteered to present one of Mishima’s plays as he had a tremendous impact on the work of Tennessee Williams. After the success of the 2014 staging of The Lady Aoi, the production was revived in 2019 at the festival and ran for an extended season at Provincetown Theatre.  With Covid, it has taken a while for this acclaimed production to make its way to Cape Town. This production is a two hander, performed by Marcel Meyer and Matthew Baldwin – with puppets, masks and props and sound design by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and lighting design by Faheem Bardien. Direction is by Fred Abrahamse. As far as can be ascertained, this is the first presentation of the play on the South African stage. This is a long-form interview, but the chances are that if you live in South Africa, you are probably not familiar with the play. Read on: Marcel Meyer provides insights into “a haunting exploration of unrequited love and passion… a beautiful play”, which he says “is sadly, not staged often”.  

About the play – The Lady Aoi- in a coma in a hospital

Japanese writer Yukio Mishima modernized a 15th century Noh play, setting it in a 1956 Japanese hospital. Lady Aoi is lying in a coma. In Abrahamse & Meyer’s staging, the setting is timeless. It could be anywhere and anytime. As far as I understand, without having seeing the production, it dangles between physical and spiritual/other realms; dreams, nightmares; reality, imagination.  Matthew Baldwin, plays Hikaru, the husband of Lady Aoi. He is a dashing young businessman and returns from a business trip to be at his wife’s bedside. Sounds cool and perfect but behind the image of the dutiful husband, stuff is brewing. In the hospital, Hikaru encounters a strange nurse, played by Marcel Meyer. The nurse morphs into, Lady Rokujo, a “living ghost”. She makes a pass at Hikaru. The backstory is that Rokujo is Hikaru’s former lover. She was an older woman. He spurned her and married a younger woman- Aoi. In the hospital ward, Rokujo make her move, to take back her love, by getting rid of Aoi. Meyer: “Hikaru means ‘the shining one’. He is Mishima’s modern day interpretation of the dashingly handsome hero, Prince Genji [from the15th century Noh play].”

Repressed desires- ghost and love story- erotica and a profound poem on the pain of loss and unrequited love

It sounds like an eerie ghost story – punctured with repressed desires; unresolved past and a tenuous present. Meyer: “Yes, in classic Noh conventions – a simple character like a monk or a nun is the catalyst that evokes the demon spirit to reveal its true identity. Likewise, the nurse in the modern play is a device to ready Hikaru and the audience for the arrival of Mrs Rakujo’s spirit. Lady Aoi is a wonderfully complex and multi-faceted play. It is simultaneously a ghost story and a love story. A piece of erotica and a profound poem on the pain of loss and unrequited love. Even though the play is only nine pages long, in performance it runs at almost an hour and takes the audience on an epic journey through a myriad of emotions and showcases Mishima’s literary and dramatic brilliance in a work that astonishes and mystifies like a dazzling black diamond.”

The Lady Aoi -in the pandemic- audience as masked observers in a hospital ward

This production was staged pre-Covid in the USA. Here we are in a liminal stage. Covid is still with us – but not as hectic as before. In lockdown level 1, we are untethered, dangling in an eerie place; of uncertainty.  We have lost out on participating in rituals -communal celebrations, religious gatherings, weddings and so on.  We couldn’t mourn. We couldn’t visit people in hospital and comfort the bereaved. For many it has been a time of regret and loss and loneliness. Relationships – or lack of -have been heightened in this time -as people have perhaps reflected on the past – loves, opportunities not taken. What is Abrahamse & Meyer conveying now, to audiences in SA, as we sit, with our masks on, in the theatre? Meyer: “This is exactly why we decided that there is no time like the present to present this play here in Cape Town. Themes that were cerebral notions in a pre-Covid world, have suddenly become viscerally immediate and real as we continue to live in a world still trying to come to terms with a pandemic and the accompanying sense of loss that came with it. Also, to play this particular play in front of a masked audience adds so many layers to the themes of this play – in a way it now becomes a piece of immersive theatre – as if you- the masked audience sit like masked observers in an ICU ward in a hospital. In a play and genre where mask wearing is so intrinsic to the fibre of the plays: It becomes a meta-theatrical exploration of what is concealed and what is revealed, what we mask and what we show.”

Cautionary tale – be present in the present

Mishima wrote this play in 1954- after World War II – when so much had changed and he must have felt in a deep sense of despair of loss? Meyer” Yes. This play is in many ways an intense poem on the theme of loss. The loss of love. The loss of youth. The loss of one’s mind. The loss on a grip of reality. The loss of one’s sense of self.” It is a cautionary tale for us to be present; to summon up Living Ghosts to guide us; to find meaning in a period when time has lost its meaning; in a time of Hashtags, without a lot of real connection? Meyer: “Absolutely. As with all Noh Drama and the Buddhist philosophy which inspired it – it is a call to be present in the present, and to let go of our harmful need to cling on to a past. And our need to come to an awakening and realisation to let go of harmful clinging in order for our souls and spirits to be truly free.”

Designing The Lady Aoi – ‘voluptuous excess’ and the minimalism and austerity of classical Noh and Zen Buddhism

The Lady Aoi occupies a space that is of this world and also of another world. The aesthetic is minimalist and pared down and at the same time, full bodied with layers of images, textures and sounds.  Meyer: “I think the design for The Lady Aoi is one our most beautiful and striking. It plays with notions like ‘voluptuous excess’ which is a hallmark of Mishima’s work pitted against the minimalism and austerity of classical Noh and Zen Buddhism- which embraces the concept that there is a whole universe in nothingness.”

The Lady Aoi – costumes

Meyer: “The ‘voluptuous excess’ is given concrete form in the sheer abundance of textures and voluminous amounts of fabric used in the construction of the costumes of the Nurse, Mrs Rokujo and Lady Aoi herself. Hikaru’s costume is inspired by the silhouette and structure of a traditional Samurai armour but taking inspiration from Mishima’s text where Hikaru is a businessman – the garment is constructed out of a myriad of tailored white dress shirts sewn together to create this armour like garment. In stark contrast to the detailed and elaborate costumes and headdresses, [as would be the case in Noh theatre] is the austerity and minimalism evident in the set design – a large, white Ensō [the Zen symbol for eternity and nothingness] encircles the metallic hospital bed on which lady Aoi is lying – above it floats an installation of large paper flowers – excess and austerity in interplay. More ‘voluptuous excess’ is expressed again in the densely complex and thrilling musical score that Charl has created for this piece – it truly is one of his most inspired creations, so much so that the music is an additional character in the play – as it is in Noh. The lighting design becomes a living metaphor for Mishima’s theme of the war that exists between light and dark, between shadow and incandescence, between life, and death.”

The Lady Aoi – puppets

In productions of Lady Aoi, she is often represented by a robe or a kimono. In this production, she is a puppet and puppets figure extensively in the production as do masks. Meyer: “In our production Aoi is represented by a life-size puppet. In the classic Noh play Aoi is represented by a kimono. In the other productions of the Mishima version Aoi is usually played by an actress although it is not a speaking part. Mishima also calls for a sailboat to come onstage at a specific moment in the play. In our production Aoi transforms and becomes the sailboat. When Mrs Rokujo first appears, she is represented by a puppet head mounted on a headdress.”

Puppets -inspired by Noh masks

The original Noh 15th play was masked but Mishima took away the masks and used puppets and/or proxies –such a kimono? Meyer: “We wanted to play homage to the masked nature of traditional Noh – but still observe Mishima’s vision of a mask-less modern Noh theatre. So, the puppet head of Mrs. Rokujo takes its inspiration in look and feel from a classical Noh Mask – which is worn on top of the head of the actor – giving the audience a double vision – a masked and mask-less face at the same time – 15th century classic Noh and 20th century modern Noh co-existing simultaneously. As Professor Dominique Buisson so succinctly explains: “In Noh theatre, the mask most laden with meaning is that of the young woman. It symbolises Japanese theatre by itself. Because it is completely ambiguous, it is seen as its most faithful expression. The ambiguous smile of the Noh woman is therefore connected to the idea of sin and redemption in Zen. It is the final state of all Japanese smiles.”

Living ghost

What about the Japanese concept of ‘the living ghost’ in the character of Lady Rokujo? Meyer: “In his introduction to Japanese Noh Dramas, Royall Tyler writes that in Noh ‘one Buddhist issue is often central: attachment, or clinging, to the objects of sense and desire, and the need to renounce this clinging. Since Buddhism teaches that this clinging is a grievous error. In many plays the central characteris a spirit still clinging to some aspect of its earthly life and eager to renounce this clinging.’ Rokujo cannot let go of her overwhelming passion for Hikaru – a love so profound that she is willing to destroy and annihilate everything in her wake to maintain it. This sets off the catastrophic events that are depicted in the play. A living ghost is a spirit who leaves a living person’s body to go elsewhere to do malice. In this case – Rokujo’s spirit -nightly leaves her body and goes to possess and torment the body of Aoi. Rokujo’s ultimate aim is to finally kill Aoi.”

Mishima’s interest in Noh

Meyer: “Noh, a highly stylized genre of classical Japanese theatre, is a drama of soliloquy and reminiscence, with no action or development of conflict as with traditional Western drama. Professor Donald Keene, a close friend and translator of Mishima’s work brilliantly explains: ““Noh developed into an essentially symbolic theatre, where both the texts of the plays and the gestures of the actors were intended to suggest unspoken, indefinable realities. The world of the dead was perhaps uniquely suited to the peculiarly remote, symbolic nature of Noh, and the separation between life and death, the dead and the living, has never been more touchingly depicted than in Noh. So, for Mishima – embracing this poetic, stylized and remote form of theatre was a way to break away from what he considered the banality of life in contemporary Japan and gave him a tool to express his world view where idealised beauty and death are interconnected and inseparable. Yūgen, in Chinese philosophical texts means “dim, deep, mysterious” and Noh is regarded as theatre of yūgen. In relation to Noh, yūgen is said to mean “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe…and the sad beauty of human suffering… This notion of Yūgen was also profoundly aligned with Mishima’s philosophy.”

Ancient and contemporary, mythic, and mystical at the same time

In adapting the Noh play and creating The Lady Aoi, Mishima dug deep into multiple sources. Meyer: “The Noh play is based on an incident in what is now considered to be the world’s first novel, the 11th century The Tale of Genji written by an aristocratic woman, Lady Murasaki. Our production tries to pay homage to The Lady Aoi’s rich literary history by combining elements from all three eras of the works lineage [11th century, 15th century and 20th century].” Mishima set his play in the 1950s but for this production, the context is timeless. By conflating these diverse periods we’ve attempted to create a world that is both ancient and contemporary, mythic, and mystical at the same time. The work is universal in its themes and we wanted the aesthetic to acknowledge this universality, without tying it specifically to any one time or place.”

Why the Lady Aoi got the nod by a Cape Town theatre company

It doesn’t look like this play is performed a great deal. What drew your company to this particular play? Was it because Tennessee Williams drew on Noh in his work? Meyer: “Yes. In 2013 we had staged a very successful production of Tennessee Williams’ Japanese inspired play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Because of the success of Milk Train we decided to look into other Japanese inspired Williams works like The Day on Which a Man Dies [which Williams titled a Noh play and dedicated to Mishima] and In the Bar of Tokyo Hotel. So, when David Kaplan decided that the 2014 festival would be curated around the theme of Williams and his writer friends, we volunteered that we would like to present one of Mishima’s plays. We read several of his plays and finally decided on The Lady Aoi – because of its haunting exploration of unrequited love and passion and its breathtakingly beautiful poetic language. The production was a huge success at the 2014 Festival – and in 2019 David Kaplan decided to curate an entire festival dedicated to the works of Mishima and Williams. He asked us to revive The Lady Aoi and play it in repertory with Williams’ The Night of the Iguana – another play where Williams was experimenting with conventions, themes and ideas found in classic Noh drama.”

World Theatre in Cape Town summer 2021/22

This is the first production in the summer season of World Theatre that Abrahamse & Meyer have lined up at the Artscape Theatre Centre. More info about what is next? Meyer: “Yes, this is indeed the first in a series of very exciting pieces of World Theatre that we will be presenting at Artscape this summer. Coming up is an exciting new production of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire followed by the world premiere of a new South African play titled, Contested Bodies, inspired by the life of the legendary Doctor James Barry.”

Marcel Meyer (front) and Mathew Baldwin (back) in Yukio Mishima’s The Lady Aoi. In 2014, Cape Town theatre company, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, staged the play in the USA, at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival and again in 2019 at the festival and in Provincetown. The production is on in Cape Town, at Artscape from November 17 to December 4, 2021. Supplied.

❇This interview has been marginally edited for length and clarity. Images supplied. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: http://: