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Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Sometimes the theatre can teach you something about recent history that passed you by, even though you lived through it. So it is with this play by Francis Turnly, the story of a group of Japanese coastal dwellers who disappeared in the late 70’s, seemingly abducted by North Korea.

The story is told through the life of one family, single mother Etsuko and her two daughters, Reiko and Hanako. Hanako disappears and Etsuko spends the rest of her life searching for her daughter, and the truth, with the help of Reiko and her friend Tetsuo. She sends out a message in a bottle, literally, on a daily basis. She finds the relatives of other victims and forms a campaign group, but the government is reluctant to take up the cause and the press hesitant about supporting it.

North Korea’s intentions initially seem to be to brainwash and turn those abducted and return them as spies, but this later changed to using them to teach their language and customs to potential spies. Some, like Hanako, are forced to marry and have children. She even finds happiness with Kum-Choi, the husband of her arranged marriage, and their daughter Hana. When relations between the two countries ease, the government acts at last and Etsuko learns the fate of her daughter. Though it’s a personal story, you learn a lot about the post-war geopolitics of East Asia.

Tom Piper’s set revolves to move us between the countries, with illustrative giant projections by Luke Halls, but otherwise Indhu Rubasingham’s staging is fairly conventional, focusing on the storytelling, without distraction. After last year’s ‘yellow face’ controversy, it’s good to see a complete cast of actors of East Asian heritage, with excellent performances all round.

I’m not sure how this particular piece of history passed me by, but I was glad to be informed at last, and given the profile of North Korea in today’s news, its rather timely.

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I’ve long liked this curious Japanese art form. Played entirely by men with extravagant costumes and heavy make-up, exaggerated movement & facial expressions on picture-book kitsch sets, it’s almost like a cartoon coming alive before your very eyes.

Despite the helpful simultaneous translation (& commentary) through individual earpieces, I can’t say I followed the story. Part of the reason is that you’re glued to the visual imagery, so much detail is put into every costume, movement and expression.

They mostly enter along a catwalk running half the length of the stalls on one side, which is very effective (if you’re sitting on the other side, as I was!) and on one occasion enables them to distract you to facilitate a surprise entrance. There’s much quick-change stuff and dramatic entrances from the star, Ebizo Ichikawa XI, in the second half.

I’m not sure the story matters anyway, as gasping at the skills of the performers, admiring the extraordinary costumes and smiling at the kitschness of it all is enough.

It may sometimes seem like a museum or a tourist attraction, but it has to be seen!

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