Kabuki is a strange phenomenon. In Western terms it could perhaps be described as a combination of silent movies, opera and abstract dance. It is a very Eastern form of art, in its strong adherence to tradition. I can’t think of any Western art where performers are born into their job, and most plays in the repertoire are handed down through centuries with little change.

This evening’s performance consisted of two parts. The first was a lyrical / abstract piece, where a young girl (well, a male actor playing the role of a young girl) danced of love, then heartbreak, quarrel, and making up. The second was a dramatic story blending love and horror.

Kabuki’s popular roots were quite apparent in the story, which was a melodrama worthy of any soap opera: lovers fleeing in the night through pouring rain to commit suicide together, possessions by ghosts, bloody fights, and so on. A lot of traditional Japanese stories seem very dramatic, in fact, and involve lots of ghosts and violent deaths – I’ve noticed the same in Japanese manga and fairy tales as well.

The acting, meanwhile, was at once stylised and extravagant. A lot was communicated through small and subtle gestures that may well be obvious to a more experienced audience, but would have remained completely incomprehensible to us, if it hadn’t been for the audio guides that were available. “Note how she crosses her arms to indicate intimacy” or “the deep drum signifies a heavy downpour of rain”… umm, OK. Other feelings and facts were acted out most expressively – the fights in particular were almost overly obvious, as the fighters froze repeatedly in pre-defined tableaus.

The acting was supported by excellent music – quite discrete and low-key, but expertly performed – as well as beautiful costumes and impressive scene designs. Even the programme was good, and the audio guide added the final touch. A great introduction to kabuki, and a nice break from ordinary theatre fare.