Usagi Yojimbo at Southwark Playhouse
In a playful morality tale about honour, Usagi Yojimbo shows the title character (played by Jonathan Ragget), a rabbit who wants to become a warrior, learn the true meaning of being a samurai from a curmudgeonly old lion. No, it’s not animation, it’s a live stage show.
Adapted by Stewart Melton from the comic books by Stan Sakai, the play feels like a meeting of old and new, treating historical Japan with modern sensibilities, through the furry lens of animal samurai. The show is instantly accessible, and any cynicism is dismissed by gentle audience interaction in the preamble.
On first impression, the set seemed quite stark, the most interesting feature being a negative mountainscape conjured over the thrust with bamboo rods. However, Ele Dunn’s design soon proved to be extremely versatile and imaginative, particularly the use of projections (by Nina Dunn) that literally made the empty stage into a blank canvas, and lighting by Joshua Pharo. Images in the style of the original comics brought moments of beauty and comedy, as well as deftly sidestepping the using stage blood in a family show.
While the theatre was mostly occidental, there were flashes of Japanese culture woven throughout, including traditional music (composed and superbly performed by Joji Hirota), and even traditional dance. It was a smooth meeting of cultures.
Moments of lapse in the choreography marred what were otherwise exciting fight sequences, which helped pace the show well. There was a great translation of montages that comic books do so well, speeding the story through several years without ever becoming boring or confusing. The ensemble cast generally did well – Dai Tabuchi’s lion was a highlight as well as the portrayals of Usagi’s best friends by Haruka Kuroda and Siu Hun Li. Their efforts were supported by excellent costume design, which not only evoked the different animals and the classical Japanese dress, but allowed the cast to flit from one character to the next with ease.
Suitable for children and adults alike (Southwark Playhouse recommends ages 8 and up), Usagi Yojimbo is a wonderful alternative to inevitable Christmas-themed theatre offerings this winter.
Usagi Yojimbo is on at Southwark Playhouse until 4th January 2015, for further information or to book visit here.