My need to noh

by Hugh Quarshie

Maybe it’s because I’m an African that I love trying on other cultures; for by so doing, I can perhaps console myself that I am not in thrall to any one culture, that despite centuries of colonial domination, I can pick and choose between them.

Maybe it’s because I’m an African that I understand how notional nation-states really are, coming from a continent where countries were created by the stroke of a pen, and controlled by the sword or rather the Maxim gun held by ruthless Europeans. No, not countries but states which are still struggling to become nations and find a national identity.

Maybe it’s because I’m an African that, I admit, I may have been too easily impressed by the bold assertions of imperial cultures that their values were ‘universal’. And maybe it’s because I’m an African that I have felt the need to challenge those assertions, to determine for myself what is truly universal and what is culturally specific, what is truly liberating and what is actually limiting,restrictive and even parochial.

The young actor might learn the conventions of performance by watching other great actors perform, just as a young artist might copy the Old Masters. But eventually, the artist will move beyond those conventions of seeing and thinking. The mature artist will come to question the claims of ‘universality’ made on behalf of great cultural icons.

Shakespeare has long been the icon, the monolith of English literature and theatre that casts a shadow over all other writers. His claim to ‘universality’ probably dates from Ben Jonson’s eulogy that he “was not of an age but for all time...” It is the British Bardolator’s proud boast that the Germans, of all people, speak of ‘unser Shakespeare’ (‘our’ Shakespeare). On a recent trip to Caceres in Spain, I walked past the Gran Teatro and stood for a while looking at the large mural of Cervantes side by side with a mural of Shakespeare. (I cannot be sure if the classical Spanish playwrights Calderon, Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega were represented because I have no idea what they look like...). 

What this told me was not necessarily that Shakespeare is  truly ‘universal’ but that the Germans, the Spanish, indeed the Europeans are truly international in their outlook in a way in which the British often aren’t. What it told me was that if I looked beyond this monolith, I might find some cultural clothes that fit me better than the borrowed costumes of English-speaking culture.

I know little about Japanese culture and probably understand even less. I have yawned through kabuki, read a little Yukio Mishima, pored over the erotic art of Utamaro, puzzled over the dream-like animations of Studio Ghibli, eaten Sushi and drunk Japanese whiskey. But my ‘knowledge’ of Japanese culture is derived largely from the films of Akira Kurosawa. In a duel between samurai, there is no place for hesitancy and doubt. Every move, gesture and expression seems bold, purposeful and precise; thought and action seemed fused together. Watching a recording of Akira Matsui in performance, displaying his nimble and elegant artistry, only reinforced this impression. And this made the prospect of working with him irresistible: the chance to watch an artist interpret the spirals of doubt and repetition in Samuel Beckett’s Rockaby, to grasp what seems intangible, to marry gesture to word, fusing opposites together. My instinct was that it would be precisely like watching an Old Master at work, chipping away at a marble slab to release the form lurking within. My hope was that it would be a reminder of the mission that underpins Art’s only possible claim to ‘universality’: the mission to reaffirm and remind us of our shared humanity.

Rockaby by Samuel Beckett, performed by Akira Matsui and Hugh Quarshie at LSO St Luke's, London. 25 February 2017

Rockaby by Samuel Beckett, performed by Akira Matsui and Hugh Quarshie at LSO St Luke's, London. 25 February 2017