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Gate Theatre, London

Andrew Field
posted 6 June 2007

Translation is an impossible task. Transforming a text from one language into another without losing any of the meaning is like to trying to rebuild a brick house in clay. The wonderful thing about Ben Yeoh's new play at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre is that, while most translations conceal the difficult and pragmatic process of re-structuring and re-invention that are necessary to any translation, Nakamitsu places that precarious balance between two cultures centre stage.

The primary reason for this is the very nature of the drama that the playwright has chosen to translate. As Yeoh has highlighted himself, the Japanese Noh tradition from which the play is drawn is grammatically, culturally and historically so distinct that any attempt to directly replicate it would be destined to failure from the start; after all the unique form of Noh theatre relies on familiarity, both of an audience with a series of stories and conventions that pre-date Shakespeare, and of the actors with the single role that they will master over the course of twenty or thirty years. Yeoh begins then from an understanding of the impossibility of replicating the drama that he has chosen to translate. Instead his writing infuses a sense of the fundamentally inexpressible Japanese original into the familiar Western structure of playwright-director-performers.

This process results in a play that is a beautiful series of echoes; inflections of our own experience delicately blended with the play's Japanese origins. Nowhere is this more effective than at the beginning of the play, as a scene of seedy Western familiarity unfolds in a garish strip club, men dressed as schoolboys and army officers gyrating on the shiny, white traverse stage. But when this sleazy cabaret is interrupted by a sharp suited white man and his hooded gun-wielding assailant, the language streaming from their Western mouths is startlingly alien. The effect is of something that is familiar but is not, of something we can almost understand but that is still new and incomprehensible. This then brilliantly reversed when the almost stereotypical Japanese sounds and costumes of the rest of the play are accompanied by English voices that now, after the opening, seem so comforting and local.

Yeoh and his directors continue to toy between contradictory frames of reference to tell their story. In the same way that the stylised movements of the actors at once suggest the Noh origins of the play and the contemporary nightclub strip-teases of its opening, so the story itself feels at once alien and recognisable. The aging Nakamitsu is given the task of executing his master’s errant son, but when his own son begs to be killed in his place, Nakamitsu is left to decide between the honour and love he has for his master’s family and the equal love he bears his own child. Despite their distant origins, this conceit, and Nakamitsu’s turmoil and grief, become stingingly reminiscent of figures from our own tradition; a Lear, or even an Abraham.

As a consequence of this, and also of the sweaty immediacy of the staging in the tiny Gate Theatre, the story does not feel like a cultural artefact or a museum piece. Its simple narrative of honour, subjection and tragedy has real emotional clout. Some effective pieces of stagecraft, particularly involving a bloody book, dripping red spots onto the white stage, and the incredible, incessant, pounding music, further enhance a thoroughly affecting 45 minutes of theatre.

Neither wholly amalgamated into our own experience nor kept as an exotic, distant curiosity, Nakamitsu is unashamedly a new work; a fascinating bridge between disparate cultures and conventions. Indeed, the play is very much like its most intriguing musical accompaniment, performed on a percussion instrument called the Hang, invented in the year 2000, and normally found in a remote area of Switzerland; its ethereal, resonant sound is a consequence of incorporating parts of the steel drum with various other percussion instruments. Both the instrument and the play are fascinating contemporary creations, pieces that look and feel at once startling new and yet ancient and familiar. Both are also worth travelling a very long way for, and certainly as far as Notting Hill.

Till 16 June 2007


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