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Reviewed by Judy Halebsky
With The Gull, Daphne Marlatt creates a Canadian version of a Japanese Noh play. Produced by Pangaea Arts, The Gull was originally staged by a team of Japanese and Canadian theatre professionals in Richmond, BC in May 2006. The 650-year-old tradition of Noh combines poetry, vocal technique, dance, acting, staging, and music. This book presents the verbal-text aspects of the production along with five pages of color photos from the original 2006 performance. It includes Toyoshi Yoshihara’s masterful Japanese translation of the script.
In the preface, Marlatt discusses her inspiration for writing the play, and Noh expert Richard Emmert illuminates key differences between the tradition of Noh and spoken drama. The script is carefully laid out with Japanese terminology of Noh structures explained in parentheses. This book provides a starting place for a Canadian audience to enter into the aesthetics and creative structures of Noh without the extensive study of Japanese history and culture required to access English-language translations of traditional Noh plays.
Marlatt’s Noh play creates a Canadian story within the themes of structures of Japanese Noh. This work is fictional but reflects the history of the Japanese Canadian fishing community of Steveston, BC. It eloquently addresses the trauma, dislocation, and injustice of the internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II and its lingering repercussions. The play begins as two brothers return to the west coast to fish the same waters their father once did. They find themselves piecing together the remnants the lives of their parents, both of whom have perished in the intervening years. The ghost of their mother in the form of a gull visits them on the boat. As is typical in Noh, this ghost is trapped in this world by lingering emotional attachments. She has come with a message to her sons and asks them to leave Canada for her childhood home of Mio, Japan.
In the humorous Kyogen interlude that in this Canadian Noh is also tender and poignant, an older returning fisherman reminisces with the brothers about their parents. In the second half of the play, the brothers come to understand the feelings of abandonment and betrayal that their mother suffered in the internment and its aftermath. This moment of insight is key in the play. To stage an opportunity for a ghost to address the living and seek some kind of resolution is also a central structure in the tradition of Noh.
The text traverses translation in multiple ways. The 2006 performance had a bilingual structure. Akira Matsui, in 1998 named an Intangible Cultural Asset of Japan, was the lead actor and played the role of the mother. He spoke and chanted in Japanese using Yoshihara’s translation while the brothers spoke in English. A five-voice chorus chanted lines to fill in the gaps. Unlike the performance, the print version delineates the text into an English and a Japanese version. Another point of translation is the story itself, which presented multiple shifting perspectives. The most significant example is in how the brothers gain insight into their mother’s point of view. This is also echoed in the formal structure of Noh in that the chorus chants at times about the lead actor and at other times as the lead actor.
Translation was part of Marlatt’s journey as she found a way to give Noh meaning and significance in BC. Surprisingly, Noh’s intense, somber concentration and its deliberately slow meditative pace are particularly well-suited for voicing discontent. Noh is able to convey a quiet, intense rage. With Marlatt’s nuanced attention as a listener and a writer, The Gull tells of a tragic chapter in Canadian history with both power and eloquence.
This review first appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010)