In the podcast BBC newshour, episode 08 Aug 2023, they talk about the recent coup in Niger, starting at around 30:00. The context is that the apparently strong reactions by Ecowas, such as the mentions for possible military interventions against Niger, are not proving effective. From 32:16, the interviewee says: (transript by me, so there are possible mistakes)
Unfortunately they've taken on the profile of Kabuki theatre, that you know, you have the coup... there's a snit fit by Ecowas and other, you know, multinational organisations... and they issue ultimatums, nothing happens.. and then they switch from trying to reverse the coup to, then, putting forward a [***] road map to return to democracy.
Both from the context and my knowledge of Kabuki, I can judge that this means something along the line that they are making exaggerated moves but they are fruitless. I'm not sure whether the phrase implies the ineffectiveness is by design (Ecowas itself is not expecting it to be effective: it's merely for showing off) or not (Ecowas is seriously hoping it'll make a difference).
No dictionary that I have mentions this figurative meaning. Searching on the internet yields one article on vocaburary.com, which reads 'Kabuki's melodramatic movements led to the word being used figuratively to mean "political posturing" or "political theater."' and one article on slate.com that argues its use should be discouraged. The trustworthiness of them (especially the latter) is not clear for me.
Sorry for the long read: my questions are
- What is the meaning of the phrase? Is my reading above correct?
- Is the figurative usage widespread, or more of a creative writing? Is it casual? Derogatory/slangy? Or, perhaps pedantic? Does that sound old-fashioned?
- Is there any specific nuance? Because many of the English speakers are probably not so familiar with Kabuki, I'm guessing it isn't used just because it can give readers a vivid image. Additionally, is there any clear difference from theatrical, which seem to bear similar meaning (of course they do because essentially they share the same art)?