Monday 3 July 2006

The Bee

Soho Theatre, London

This is a genuinely disturbing play in which one man’s personal anguish is worked up into a terrifying theatrical spectacle. Mr Ido returns home from work to find that his wife and son are being held hostage by an escaped criminal, Ogoro. Desperation takes him to Ogoro’s own home, where he discovers what can become of a mild-mannered salaryman in an impossible situation.

There is nothing distinctively Japanese about the story, adapted by Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan from a story by Yasutaka Tsutsui, but the characters’ Japanese names and other peculiarities (noodles, baseball) combine with the period setting (1974) to give a subtly foreign feel to the play. It has a similar quality to Soviet-era East European literature, in which the unfamiliar setting (for a Western audience) adds to the sense of the surreal. Oddly, the fact that Ido is played by a woman barely registers in this regard, largely because Kathryn Hunter’s extraordinary performance is so firmly in tune with the play as a whole. There is too much else going on for the actor’s gender to be of any interest.

Hideki Noda’s direction is circus-like rather than naturalistic. In Japan he has directed opera as well as his own adaptations of classic kabuki, and his eclectic influences are apparent in The Bee‘s distinctive sensibility. The use of elastic ropes as microphones-cum-police cordons-cum-metaphorical web in the opening scene seems gratuitously theatrical, but as the action unfolds every detail seems to serve the whole, from the multi-purpose pencils to the telephone rings generated by the actors’ own voices. As it becomes clear that Ido’s attempts to resolve the situation as a reasonable man are failing, the tension builds and the atmosphere becomes increasingly menacing. The final twenty minutes or so of the play are an obscene ballet set to the chorus from Madame Butterfly, a pas de deux between Hunter’s insane Mr Ido and Noda’s own Mrs Ogoro, a picture of feminine resignation.

Indeed, while Kathryn Hunter is undisputably the star of the show, with a fantastically physical performance, the rest of the ensemble acting is sufficiently impressive that I felt odd applauding only four actors at the end. Particularly artful is Glyn Pritchard’s swift transition from unconscious detective to Ogoro’s six-year-old son, and this is itself very much a team effort. (The fourth industrious player is Tony Bell.) The bee of the title is a mere sound effect, but one brought to life in the reactions of the cast, and serving as a metaphor for the frenzied self-destructiveness of Mr Ido.

Till 15 July 2006.



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