Bare And Intimate: ‘New Plays: Japan’ Review

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Image Credit: NNTT

★★★★✰

Bare and intimate, the Royal Court’s attic is a playground for works in progress. New Plays: Japan is no exception; three short productions, produced in partnership with the New National Theatre in Tokyo, Japan’s sole national theatre. The scheme supports fourteen emerging Japanese playwrights, working in both theatres and with some of the best in British East Asian theatre, to test material in front of international audiences.

‘It’s so unreasonable, absurd, being pregnant. I wanted to write about it in its grotesque way’. Playwright Shoko Matsumara certainly meets her mark in 28 hours 01 minute, a surreal exploration of motherhood and pregnancy. Born from her experience of COVID – one of her child’s first words was ‘mask’ – it stands far ahead of the other New Plays on show.

Natsumi Koroda plays Aoji, an expectant mother who simply wants to pee, but keeps stumbling over obstacles set by the patriarchy. Kanako Nakano delights as her tangerine-brandishing neighbour Uso, who wants a daughter without becoming a ‘housewife’. Feigning solidarity to comedic effect, she chases her ‘horse-smelling’ husband, played by Mark Takeshi Ota, with her room spray. 

Increasingly awkward situations force thundering laughter, right to the play’s finale. Uso’s horse-band gorges on oranges as Aoji gives birth, a parallel suffering which suggests how sexist expectations limit both men and women. The central kotatsu – the table which serves as a symbol of family values, and also traps heat – serves as the perfect stage for all courses.

Matsumara draws from a wealth of contemporary literature; she name checks Hitomi Kanehara’s Mothers, but similar themes can be found through Mieko Kawakami and Han Kang too. It’s utterly surreal and utterly sublime; one I hope will return to British stages soon.

Tomoko Kotaka’s Not Yet Midnight traverses three stories in the midst of a power cut in the city. Inspired by novelist Yoko Ogawa, the tales are loosely entwined with references to an ambiguous douchebag, and death – too many loose threads left dangling without a hook. Total blackouts in between stories offer the most structure; Phil Burke’s headlights serve perfectly, as computer screens, street lights, and narrative stage directions.

In the first part, office workers plot to embezzle funds. The second passes in vague references to illicit affairs, impotent men, and breakfast being a woman’s winning meal. The third part speaks directly to social disenfranchisement in Japan. Meg Kubota excels as a woman deprived an education due to her gender, now found picking fag butts from the floor. (Stirred into miso soup, they make for the perfect murder weapon.) Kirsty Rider also delivers strong performances across roles; Hanako Footman can’t hold her smoke.

Men get a look in Onigoro Valley, as Nino Furuhata and Ashley Alymann play two decontamination workers in Fukushima. They ride the waves of male relationships, the joy of finding Asahi beers at the back of the fridge, the anguish of stomach upsets caused by eating raw meat. 

Taking the form of a supernatural folk horror, Onigoro Valley is nevertheless grounded in playwright Saori Chiba own lived experiences. Unable to return to her home between 2011 and 2017, her play embodies the anger of her displacement, and how compensation offered after the nuclear disaster has only ‘destroyed people’s sense of value’. 

The three playwrights for 2023 – all women, by coincidence – write in Japanese, and their plays are staged here in translation. In practice, much of the audience is bilingual. Some are fellow East Asian theatrics, who greatly appreciate seeing these stories staged with such respect. It’s a credit to translators Sayuri Suzuki and Susan Momoko Hingley – and interpreter Kozue Etsuzen, in shoes adorned by cobwebs – and how they have made these productions accessible to non-Japanese audiences. 

The post-show Q&A, which runs as long as the shorts themselves, provokes even more interesting conversations. All three playwrights point to Japanese novelists – not playwrights, they’re competition – for inspiration, whilst NNTT Artistic Director Erika Ogawa recommends two pioneers of modern Japanese theatre, Juro Miyoshi and Kunio Kishida.

Experimental sessions like these are less common in Japan. Actors and directors share a more hierarchical relation, squashing the space for creative interpretation. But mistakes should be welcome – Kuroda’s occasional slip ups even add to her uncertain character in 28 hours 01 minute. Indeed, it’s a pleasure to see these script-in-hand performances and ideas in development, to imagine the final staging from stage directions read aloud. Both theatres benefit from this partnership, and long may it continue to blossom. 

Words by Jelena Sofronijevic


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