BALLAD OF YACHIYO
Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 28 January, 2000

Philip Kan Gotanda's play the opening offering in the Gate's "Remembering The Future" season has, in James Kerr's production, all the elegant simplicity and spareness of fine Japanese art (so spare, in fact, that on the press night at least, the cellist credited in the programme was nowhere in evidence). However, it also demonstrates that, contrary to the minimalist dictum, sometimes less really is less.

Phenomenal care has been taken over virtually every aspect of this production. Kerr keeps his cast of five on a tight rein, away from any great flourishes (although Togo Igawa as Takamura essays several Mifune-style vocal rumbles). As young Yachiyo (Inika Leigh Wright) is sent by her mother to learn the traditional graces in another village in the early twentieth-century Japanese community in Hawaii, and finds herself gradually transformed from Takamura's whipping-girl and wife Okusan's confidante into the former's lover and the latter's betrayer, the intense emotions which seethe beneath the surface are never allowed to manifest for more than an instant at a time before the collective mask of reserve and propriety is jammed back into place. Featureless mannequin puppets are deployed to act out discreetly, parabolically the feelings which the fleshly characters keep repressed. Yoko Isunuma's stage design consists of a simple wooden floor grille and rear screens; Nigel Edwards's lighting puts the finishing touch to a series of extraordinarily beautiful visual compositions on the stage.

And yet, and yet...  Whilst the story of Yachiyo's growing confusion and her inability to return to the secure, known past of her family and her young suitor has something of the distilled power and poise of a Yasujiro Ozu film, its deeper currents leave us for the most part untouched. As Kan Gotanda manoeuvres Yachiyo from phase to phase of her history, she sometimes seems merely incidental, an instrument both of the Takamuras' shifting moods and the author's set intentions for the narrative. Metaphors such as the mannequin-plays and the family of birds which nests in Takamura's potter's kiln scream their symbolism but are obstinately reticent about what it is they actually symbolise. The principal experience is of an overall aesthetic rather than a specifically theatrical event. At 80 minutes without interval, there is no surplus fat on the production, but arguably there is not quite enough dramatic flesh either.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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