What is it with Japanese culture? Why does it have an urge to create ever weirder and wackier entertainment? I mean, sure, we have Dancing with the Stars, but I’m yet to see one of the Australian television networks pick up ‘Human Tetris’ - the Japanese game show modelled on the computer game of the same name - where contestants contort themselves into a range of strange and improbable shapes to get through a wall and avoid being dunked in water. But what’s that got to do with The Bee? Well, on the surface not a lot I guess, but for some reason it popped into my head when I started thinking about my response to the play. Perhaps that’s because Japanese playwright, Hideki Noda has created an equally unusual piece of theatre which contorts into a range of seemingly improbable stylistic and emotional shapes right before your very eyes. For instance, who’d have thought you could be chuckling away to a slapstick vaudeville style chase one minute, then in the next be shifting uncomfortably in your seat as you witness a perverse onstage rape, where the rapist is a woman playing a man and the victim is a man playing a woman. Yes, The Bee is weird alright, and it truly is a cultural adventure of a very different kind to what we are used to in the Western theatrical tradition.
Hideki Noda’s unique brand of physical theatre began in Japan and was influenced by traditional Kabuki plays. However, during the early nineties he was involved in a series of workshops in the UK, which prompted him to undertake a cultural cross-pollination experiment - the result being a hybrid form of theatre that was a fusion of both Japanese and Western traditions. The culmination of this experiment was The Bee, which was first performed at London’s Soho theatre last year and now comes to Australia in this first local production by MoFuCoSu and Darlinghurst Theatre.
The play is unique for a number of reasons, the main one being that it’s the first of Noda’s works to avoid the path of translation entirely; for while its source is a Japanese short story by Yasutaka Tsutsui (Mushiriai – Plucking At Each Other), instead of Noda writing it in Japanese and then having it translated, he began a collaborative process with Irish playwright Colin Teevan, where the play was written in English from the start. The result is a play that is set in Japan featuring Japanese characters from a Japanese point of view, but written in a fluid colloquial English that immediately connects with a Western audience. It is no exaggeration to say that this is an extraordinarily different kind of theatre experience.
The Bee is set in Tokyo in 1974 and follows the descent of a “ruthless” businessman Mr Ido (Lucy Bath) as he morphs into a criminal through a strange set of circumstances that involve a violent criminal Ogoro (Tim Walter) taking his family hostage. When Ido finds that the police are uncooperative and the media are simply out for themselves, his response is to fight fire with fire – he decides to hold the criminal’s family hostage in order to broker a deal. The result is a dual hostage drama where the ante is continually rising.
Much of the play takes us by surprise and out of the realms of the usual Western theatre experience. Right from the start the stylised chorus of white-faced kabuki style reporters dislocates us and yet connects us with the farce that we recognise in our daily experience of the news and the way it is reported. There’s also a lot of gender bending inspired by the Kabuki tradition - men playing women, women playing men. Lucy Bath plays Ido, the male protagonist, with a kind of androgenous energy that is intriguing to watch. While Simon Corfield, in sexy geisha drag as Ogoro’s Wife, gives a captivating performance packed with the kind of ‘diva’ attitude that seems entirely appropriate for a play that’s being staged in downtown Darlo, only minutes from The Cross.
Detective Dodoyama (John Pollitt) is amusing and engaging as the policeman who can’t seem to stop the escalating violence and Detective Anchoku (Tim Walter) who’s character fancies himself as Steve McQueen, gets lots of laughs and injects a lovely American fusion into the piece, with his fast talking wise guy attitude. He’s also brilliant as the criminal Ogoro with a very believable Japanese accent accompanied by an hilarious stutter. Kim Taylor (who is a co-producer of the show along with Simon Corfield) is wonderful as Ogoro’s son, with her childlike facial expressions of fear and wonder.
The music and sound effects (Hayley Forward) help to bolster the surreal atmosphere when the play diverts into slap-stick, comedic mime and dance performance moments, that have a kind of ‘Manga’-like mania to them. There’s also a lovely use of Japanese shadow lighting effects (Sean Pardy) to establish characters and create dramatic entrances and exits.
There’s astute direction and staging from Sarah Enright who gets the balance right between the two competing cultures, in a piece which is like a weird East meets West love child. There’s also inspired prop substitutions (Andy McDonell), where a glove stands in for a gun to great effect (with all its sensual Freudian connotations), while a fan becomes a brutal bloody knife.
There is of course the obligatory, but highly entertaining karaoke moment, as the King of Chefs (John Pollitt) in a fetching lingerie apron sings a Japanese language version of Sinatra’s ‘My Way,’ complete with disco lighting, as the other characters perform strange aerobic dance moves. The strength of the play lies in these surreal game show like sequences which complement scenes that are tragic, comic and violent - all at the same time.
Watching The Bee is rather like undertaking a crazy dare, where you are forced to snort a hefty wack of wasabi while your friends laugh on at your discomfort. Which, I guess, brings me back to those strange Japanese game shows… ‘Human Tetris’ in all it’s odd but magnetising splendour - maybe The Bee has even more in common with it than I first thought!
Darlinghurst Theatre Company and MoFuCoSu present
by Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan
Based on the original story Mushiriai (Plucking at Each Other) by Yasutaka Tsutsui
Venue: Darlinghurst Theatre Company, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Preview: Wednesday 28 November 8pm - $20
Season: Thursday 29 November to Saturday 15 December - $30/$25
Times: Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm
Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987