Japanese legend Hideki Noda brings his Noda Map company’s latest production, The Bee, to the West End as part of a World Tour that will educate and enchant the audiences worldwide, if also confusing them as well.
The play is heavily physicalised in the Japanese style that Noda has come to be so intricately involved with. To read any of the copious literature about him indicates his importance and royal status in Japanese theatre. To see him on stage is to see someone who really does know exactly what they’re doing, which is remarkable bearing in mind the overall high quality of the show and the fact that he is not only acting in it but also directed and co-wrote it. An outstanding individual indeed. His famous limericks and word-play come through in the script with intelligent and what are slightly unnerving rhymes throughout that make you doubt whether it’s a reality on stage or a fantasy of some description, which is further undermined by the music and the physicality that doesn’t let up for a second.
The use of the set as props was a very strong positive for this piece; I particularly enjoyed their use of rubber bands for almost everything. I’d never guessed that they would serve as such a good substitute for noodles, for one. They were also expertly crafted into police tape, camera cables and microphones. It was a fantastically innovative use for them. It was a typically intelligent decision that spoke volumes about the style of the show as a whole. I also enjoyed the way in which they used pencils as a representation for fingers so that when they were broken it was still traumatic and symbolic at the same time; very unsettling indeed.
Switching from one thing to another was commonplace and each time was expertly done with the transitions being instant and complete. To make this work, the change had to be simultaneous and coordinated by every actor on the stage, it had to be a change that showed from all of them at the same instant or it wouldn’t have worked. Often aided with expert lighting changes and music the effect was jolting and smooth at the same time and achieved its objectives perfectly. This was a masterclass feature in playing multiple characters and switching between them in an instant.
This also displayed the talents of all the actors in playing multiple characters as each change, no matter how sudden, saw them completely alter their physicality so that they were very much different people. The opening scenes were the most spectacular for this, with character changes being chaotic and the physicality of the actors running across from one corner of the stage to the next, rubber band streamers in hand, neatly and efficiently carving the lines they had rehearsed so cleanly being equally crisp and clear.
Clarity, however, is not something that the play will be remembered for. The most prominent decision regarding the cast is the gender reversal of Hideki Noda and Kathryn Hunter. Hunter plays Ido, the unfortunate man who comes home to find his family being held hostage by an escaped murderer. Noda plays this man, Ogoro’s, wife. This is a striking role reversal as by the end you don’t even recognise Hunter as being a female and Noda as being male because you’re so involved in their characters as who they are that it becomes superfluous. This is particularly striking bearing in mind that there are a few dark scenes of a sexual nature between the pair where their positions would more naturally have been reversed.
This is only part of the psychological journey that we are taken on over the course of the play. The plot follows the alteration in the mind of Ido as the ordinary man find himself subjected to extraordinary circumstances and chooses extraordinary means to escape, which in the end prove fruitless. His journey is traumatic for absolutely everyone, both on stage and in the comfy seats watching the action from behind the safety of the fourth wall.
What the bee itself represents is left up to you but I would like to think it represents the conscience of Ido; the morality that he is scared of facing so swats away and celebrates at its incapacitation. The plot is just as interesting as the physicality, marking a severe difference in theatrical style and one that is fascinating. Most of the play was actually speechless, conveyed through music, action and the repetition of a pattern that brought the audience into the story, carrying the lead weight in the pits of their stomachs as it slowly dawns on them where the play is going. It is an intelligent piece of theatre that pulls off a host of remarkable effects to really affect you in ways you wouldn’t have supposed could have such an impact on you.
If you have an interest in the theatrical style and traditions of other countries, particularly the Japanese, then this is an unmissable catch for the Soho Theatre, especially when you consider that they have royalty in Hideki Noda involved so intimately. It’s not a trip you’ll regret if you’ve never been exposed to this style of theatre either, even if you may not fully understand or appreciate every aspect as completely as you could if you were well versed in this particular tradition.
This isn’t your ordinary night at the theatre but if you’re looking for something a little bit different then this is it.
Written by Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan; Directed by Hideki Noda; At the Soho Theatre; Starring Hideki Noda, Kathryn Hunter, Glyn Pritchard, Clive Mendus; Runs from 24 January 12 - 11 February 12.
John Ord (26/01/2012)