Lyric Studio Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 10 May, 2001

This is a curious assemblage, and no mistake. Yukio Mishima drew inspiration from a story of incest and murder among the French aristocracy, and remade it as Tropical Tree, a tale at once set in contemporary Japan, where banks have steel shutters and the sea glints with films of oil, and in a kind of weightless, timeless classical space. In Mishima's version, the story becomes a close parellel to, although even more complex than, that of Electra, and in Eiji Mihara's production at the Lyric Studio Hammersmith for Theatre Soleil Levant, it also straddles east and west.

Three of the five human characters are female, but the only actress in the company is Lydzia Englert as gaunt, fraught (and occasionally under-projecting even in a studio space) Ikuko, bedridden and chronically weakened by a real or imagined affliction, hectoring her brother Isamu to murder their mother, because she in turn has homicidal designs on their father. Mother Ritsuko is played by Alexi Kaye Campbell as a kind of westernised onnagata, with no sense of drag to his performance yet clothed beneath his/her black shawl in the kind of peacock gown and gaudy bodice that only a Molière vulgarian would normally be seen in; cousin Nobuko, still in mourning for her long-dead husband and whose function within this family seems largely to be that of bearing witness, is in Andrew Price's performance shaven-headed and black-robed, given to slow, precise Noh-style movements. Father Keizaburo (Mike Burnside) rumbles around in a self-centred ignorance of his own making, as mother and daughter compete to see whose incestuous charms are the greater to recruit Isamu as her murderous tool.

The only Oriental performer is Masashi Fujimoto, who at a crucial moment of confrontation enters as a Destiny figure to perform a classical, highly articulated dance and incantation; lacking the vocabulary of word and gesture, however, all we can infer is a general sense of portent. The story and tone, though, remain unambiguously Japanese. This in turn leads to moments of confusion: are the increasing moments of laughter (on hearing that Isamu and Ikuko have gone off to drown themselves, Nobuko wails, "And I hadn't even finished my knitting!") due to deadpan humour in Jo Graham and Richard Hayden's considered adaptation, or to a Hammersmith audience unable to muster up the earnestness demanded? Is Mihara's never less than interesting production, in short, an exciting synthesis or a bizarre fudge? I still cannot decide, but I don't regret having seen it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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