Review: Hypnotic encounters in beautifully creepy incarnation of Yukio Mishimas Lady Aoi – staged by Cape Town theatre company, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions- Artscape, Cape Town, 2021

Yukio Mishima’s Lady Aoi staged by Cape Town’s Abrahamse & MeyerProductions- Artscape, Cape Town, 2021  

When: November 17 to December 4, 2021 Performances times: Mon – Fridays at 7pm and 3pm  and 6pm on Saturdays Running time: 55 minutes [no interval]
Tickets: R250 Booking: Computicket  

Abrahamse & Meyer Productions’ staging of Yukio Mishima’s The Lady Aoi is a visually and aurally breathtaking experience. After watching, we sat stunned, in our seats, holding our breaths, behind our Covid masks; creeped out and intrigued what we had encountered in the theatre. With puppet performance (the central puppet is a performer in her own right), masks; multi-layered and striking lighting design (Faheem Bardien); arresting and entrancing sound design (Charl-Johan Lingenfelder) and intensely charged interactions by the human performers (Marcel Meyer and Matthew Baldwin), The Lady Aoi is a mind flip of a ghost/horror story which hovers between the intersections between ‘reality’, imagination, obsessions, lust, regret, guilt, unresolved passions and the ideal of ‘happiness’ – if that can exist- or is possible.  Life is ephemeral, fleeting. Life – and death – is a performance. Mishima was obsessed by the rituals of death and he suicided in 1975, by ritual seppuku (or hara-kiri) at the age of 45- in a death which was a public performance and intended as that – bundled with a whole lot of politics but let’s not get side-tracked. This production of The Lady Aoi, materialises like a performance, unfurling in an installation-like space. The stage is a space, that we as viewers perch around,  as the human and puppet actors present a tableaux, a cabinet of curiosities – unpacked in front of us.

The story of The Lady Aoi is a bizarre story but in in its strangeness, it is also relatable. Let’s face it – we are curious bunch, us humans. We dodge ghosts – flickers, glints, bits -of our past selves – all the time. The Lady Aoi is creepy but spookiness is not only the domain of ghost/horror stories. Watching this production in the time of Covid, year two of lockdown in South Africa, I have a sense that we are creeping our way through a liminal period. Restrictions have been eased. We may attend theatre – masked up- with socially distanced seats and gaps between people. Here we are ghostly, faceless figures (you cannot see our expressions behind the masks), at the theatre, experiencing a ghostly play -with an extraordinarily beautiful puppet as a very vital protagonist- who at times seems more ‘alive’ and spirited than the human actors.  This production has been staged twice in the USA by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions- 2014 and 2019 at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival – but the fact that we are experiencing it now – during the ghostly time of Rona – is feeding into the  strangeness of these days. I personally feel unhinged by the uncertainty of this period. Will another wave of Rona hit us, like it did at the end of 2020, when theatres shut down as numbers were high? Will the anti-vaxers vax up so theatres can operate with more seats? We know nothing. We are hovering in a ghost/horror story -of Rona.

This review contains plot spoilers, so stop now if you do not want to know more, but knowing about the narrative, was helpful for me as it allowed me to become immersed in this weird, wondrous and eeringly beautiful play. The story is that The Lady Aoi is lying comatose in a hospital bed. She has been suffering from “sexual issues” which have obviously not been great for the marriage. Her husband, Hikaru (Mathew Baldwin), is a businessman with a regal but detached bearing. He has come to be at her bedside. Hold that description for a moment. Yukio Mishima based The Lady Aoi on a 15th Japanese Noh play. It is cloaked with allusions to Noh images and ideas.

In this production, in the ward, it is an eerie place as most hospitals are. There is not much, besides a rotary dial phone on a table and a clipboard. With his wife in a state of being there and not being there, deep in her coma, Hikaru encounters the ward nurse- a scary dude – in a uniform which is like a straitjacket and wearing head gear which is reminiscent of a chef’s hat. Who is the loony in this loony bin of a hospital? The nurse mutates into the “living ghost” of Mrs Rakujo. Now, listen up. Once, the husband, Hikaro, was in love with Mrs Rakujo –an “older woman” but he left her to marry the younger and more socially desirable Lady Aoi. Mrs R is in a constant state of anguish as she yearns for her “princely ex-suitor”, Hikaru. He is a contemporary evocation by Mishima “of the dashingly handsome hero, Prince Genji [from the 15th century Noh play]”. [Interview on TheCapeRobyn, with Marcel Meyer].

Mrs R’s “living ghost” has stalked Aoi and made her life a misery. In line with the Japanese concept of “living ghost”, Mrs R is alive but she sends out her “living ghost” to harm and heckle the Lady Aoi – play with her mind- with the aim of doing away with the usurper of her affections. She has ghosted her – but not in millennial terms – of disconnecting with a person. Mrs R has chained herself to the Lady Aoi.  As with the strings of a marionette, she is in control of everything that happens. It is sheer brilliance to construct this production around a puppet and its strings. I won’t reveal more about the transitioning from inanimate to animate. You will have to watch to see the anthropomorphic awakening on stage and what transpires. It is eerie and disorienting – but such is life – and death. Hospital wards are spaces with beeping machines and squeaks and noises (wow to Lingenfelder’s spine chilling score). Hospitals are spaces where everything is sharpened and charged with portents and totems – dead flowers in a vase- get well cards with coffee stains- decaying food on the bedside table – during Covid – surgical masks under the bed, broken, discarded.  And empty, during Covid. Visitors were for the most part, barred during hard-lockdown. Now, most hospitals will at best allow, one person to visit. It is just one person, the patient and the nurse; the clipboard at the end of the bed. This pings vividly in this production – in relation to Covid – the emptiness of the ward – the silence and yet the thud and noise of the machines- chatter of the staff in other rooms. Hospitals are not peaceful places.

Talking of flowers, in this production of The Lady Aoi, dangling above the bed are flowers. They remind me of Georgia O’Keefe erotic flowers paintings. [Interestingly O’Keefe denied the Freudian/sexualised interpretations of her flower paintings.]  Marcel Meyer explained about flowers: They are a visualization of the “flowers of pain” that Mrs Rakujo brings every night. Also flowers are highly symbolic images in Noh. Flower motifs are often woven into the fabric of Noh costumes.”

Bravo to team Abrahamse & Meyer and the creative team, actors and puppets- for transfiguring Mishima’s version of a 15th Noh play- as a thrilling mind-bending flipping experience of theatre/performance/installation/music/puppetry, in the very strange and creepy ghostly days of Rona, 2021.

Marcel Meyer in Abrahamse & Meyer Productions’ staging of Yukio Mishima’s The Lady Aoi, Artscape, Cape Town, Nov-Dec 2021. Pic: Fiona MacPherson. Supplied.

❇ Images by Fiona MacPherson. Supplied. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: and