The Bee

Archives: The Bee

26 July 2007 (Thurs), Tokyo

A mini-play imported with cast intact from the U.K., where it had a brief but critically acclaimed run last year. Though based on a Japanese short story, the show was developed in London and written in English by the ever-popular Noda Hideki, who also directed. I’ve never liked Noda’s frenetic style; he is clearly uncomfortable with quiet and constantly has his characters running around the stage meaninglessly in a desperate attempt to generate energy. That was the case some years back with his Red Demon, a sophomoric play about a strange creature landing on a desert island. In that case, the British critics were on my side, giving the English version of the play a mercilessly brutal drubbing in London. The knives were thus out for The Bee. The general feeling, though, was that Noda had redeemed himself, and the play had a successful run, if only for one month at a tiny theatre. I figured if he could win the critics over, I’d give him another chance. Also, the cast of four included Kathryn Hunter, who was such a great Lear a decade ago. I tried to get tickets for the Japanese version as well, but that was sold out instantly. So I settled for just the English show, which was after all the original.

A Japanese businessman (Hunter, in another cross-dressing performance) comes home to discover that his wife and child have been taken hostage in their apartment by an armed criminal. The businessman, unable to make any headway with the police, goes to see the criminal’s own wife (Noda) in order to beg her help. She proves uncooperative, and the mission looks to fail. Suddenly, the businessman decides to take matters into his own hands. He knocks out the detective who has accompanied him, takes his gun and throws him out of the house; he then declares that the criminal’s wife and child are now his hostages, threatening to kill them unless his own family is released. The unseen criminal, conveying his messages through the police, refuses to budge, and the two parties engage in tit-for-tat measures that escalate into sickening cruelty, including chopping off the fingers of the child and mother, only to receive the same in return. The relationship between the businessman and criminal’s wife becomes perverted as they begin to have sex with each violent act; the line between violence and sex grows indistinguishable. At the end of the show, the businessman and the wife have essentially gone insane, and the hostage situation has still not been resolved. Violence in the name of revenge has accomplished nothing but destruction for all involved.

On paper, the story sounds promising enough, but that was before Noda got to it. I do not agree with the critics this time. The first half of the show was Noda’s usual breathless attempt to generate a pretence of excitement in the absence of the real thing. The actions and reactions of the characters were unnatural without being enlightening. For example, the businessman, hearing of his family’s situation, seemed strangely distant and more befuddled than concerned, as if hearing that his bicycle had been stolen. He tried to get information from the policeman, but failed to register much reaction at his shoddy treatment. Even given the British sense of the absurd, I would have expected some shock or despair given that his family’s life was at stake. Similarly, the policeman’s insensitivity to the businessman’s plight was far too exaggerated to be recognizable, and too weakly written to be Orton-esque (which I imagine the model here). At one point, the policeman and his cohorts halt the investigation to eat noodles even as the hostage drama continues, which might have been funny had it been set up properly, such as a wilder reaction from the businessman. As presented here, it reeked of desperation, aspiring to Monty Python but never grounded enough in reality to reach that level. The dialogue itself, written I presume by a native (collaborating with Noda), was not necessarily bad, but it was constantly undermined by the frenzied direction. Things improved somewhat when the pace slowed in the second half of the brief show, when the businessman had taken the criminal’s family hostage. The repeated sequence of finger-chopping, sex and delivery of severed fingers from the other side was again an idea that might have worked if the whole thing weren’t so unhinged from reality. A more naturalistic approach from the start might have highlighted the horrors of that last scene, but at this point, the absurdities had simply piled on too long.

The simple set was nicely designed, featuring a single wall with several windows and doors. The few props such as chairs and tables were brought on and off as needed. In the initial scenes, the characters wielded long elastic bands to represent microphones, barriers and other items, which looked to me like something Noda might have done in his college days. They were a distraction that added nothing that our imaginations couldn’t have done for themselves. The show did make great use of pencils as fingers: in a creepy and effective touch, the businessman snapped the pencils one by one to represent his chopping off of the fingers. That’s one image that will stay with me.

The one good part of the show was the acting. Hunter was excellent within the limits imposed by the direction, especially in the show’s second half. I still think that a man would have been a better choice since the threat of violence would have been more overt and the torture scenes more shocking, and her reactions seemed unrealistically underplayed early on. But she was very effective in the final scenes. Even more impressive, if only because so unexpected, was Noda as the criminal’s wife. He played other roles as well in the first half, which are best unmentioned. As the wife, though, he had a great command of the role once the pace settled down. The curiously blank look on his face as the torture scenes proceeded was a superb mix of resignation and expectation. In contrast with the businessman’s role, it seemed appropriate to use a man here, since the rape and torture might have been a bit too over the top with a woman. In any case, Noda acquitted himself surprisingly well, and it might be interesting to see him perform under a different director than himself.

I noticed in the program that Hunter was a member of Theatre de Complicité, that fantastic group from years back that created a fully envisioned world using only small items and their own bodies. Their use of space was witty, imaginative and absorbing, and never distracted from the story. Noda is presumably familiar with them since they came to Japan numerous times (often in the same theatre as this show), but I’m not sure he got the point. He tries too hard to be “interesting” and not enough time properly placing the characters within his story. Whatever the intended message – the futility of violence and revenge, I guess – this show in its current form is strictly for Noda lovers. I’m glad I only had to sit through it once.

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