The name Dogugaeshi refers to the technique used in Japanese puppet theatre whereby sliding screens are changed out in a number of different ways often in quick succession. This can involve a hatch opening in the centre of a flat or a screen getting switched around and reversed to represent different scenery as well as simply sliding away. It’s a style that is particularly associated with the island of Awaji, south of Kobe. While the technique has acted as a background to the main action of bunraku puppet shows in the big cities the north like Tokyo and Kyoto; in Awaji, the sliding of these screens has taken on a far greater importance and is considered to be an artform in its own right.
It was on Awaji that the American puppeteer, Basil Twist, first came across dogugaeshi. It’s not hard to see what attracted him to the form. Like a Romeo Castelluci or Robert Wilson of the miniature stage, Twist is a visual artist in theatre time. In his Rite of Spring he featured billowing sheets, ink blotches and enormous crosses pushed by a solitary figure. Here is a classical form of puppet theatre where actual puppets are of secondary importance. Instead it is a series of images. It was the world’s first slide show.
The piece, first developed back in 2003, shown at the Pit, is very much a celebration of the form. It starts with a striking demonstration of the wit and playfulness of these sliding screens, whereby a room inside a room inside a room creates a sense of perspective that pushes the form’s own logic as far as he can feasibly go. This is theatre as eye test. Twist then weaves elements of shadow puppetry and elements of bunraku (chiefly represented by a friendly looking dragon) in and out. This is accompanied by Yumiko Tanaka’s expert shamisen playing: a fascinating and rare spectacle in its own right.
At times, the piece dashes forward in time and in Peter Flaherty’s stylish video design, juxtaposes the slow, deliberate world of dogugaeshi, where time seems to slow down, with the hustle and bustle of urban Japan today. It’s a contrast that perhaps doesn’t need to be pointed out. When we hear Twist interviewing a group of elderly inhabitants of Awaji about what dogugaeshi means to them, it soon becomes clear that the sense of nostalgia for forgotten classical forms is not going to be challenged or subverted in any way.
There’s no question about the technical expertise of everything involved in making this piece. It’s a showcase of their skills as much as it’s a showcase for dogugaeshi. Ultimately, its gesture seems to be to show the audience what dogugaeshi is, which is a perfectly valid desire, of course, but one that might feel more at home in a museum than in a theatre.