The auditorium at Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo’s Sangengaya district was filled with the mostly female fans of actor Masaaki Uchino, patiently waiting for the play “Blackbird” by David Harrower to begin. The taut and provocative drama that subsequently unfolded no doubt caught some of them by surprise.
Director Tamiya Kuriyama, former head of the New National Theatre in Tokyo, saw the original staging of “Blackbird” at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival. That production moved to London and later won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, the industry’s most prestigious new-writing prize. Since then, it has been performed in the U.S., Spain and India before making its Japanese debut this month in Tokyo, after which it will tour to Nagoya, Kita-Kyushu, Osaka and Toyama.
On paper the story sounds like a familiar melodrama lifted from the tabloids. In a factory locker room, a young woman meets an older man who abused her 15 years ago. But what is so clever and radical about Harrower’s approach is how he subverts expectations of revenge and retribution to explore instead the characters’ mutual emotional dependency, right up to a shocking ending.
“This is 10 times more difficult than a normal play,” Kuriyama told The Japan Times. “But the theme of this play is not pedophilia. It’s about old wounds, reliving the wounds the characters inflicted on each other.”
Surprising us from the first few seconds, in fact it is not the innocent the young woman, Una, who is the victim, but Ray. Una is in command — witty, sharp, quietly aggressive. Ayumi Ito, sexy in a tight office worker’s skirt, slinks across the stage, a predator always making unexpected moves. She goes off into trances, she barks out orders. Ray, played by Masaaki Uchino, is nervous, frantic, inane. He fidgets, he bangs the furniture.
The single set is strewn with litter, and the design excellently captures the banal anonymity of the place. The waste is like the crumpled memories of Una and Ray, ever present, yet used and worthless.
Throughout the action of the two-hour, interval-less drama, the two characters are shut off from the outside world and alone in their past sexual bond. Things take a darker turn when they excitedly remember their encounters. Harrower has explored themes like incest before and is often pigeonholed as a practitioner of “in-yer-face” theater, which emerged in Britain in the 1990s, drama that is defined by its violence and provocation, perhaps best represented by the works of writer Sarah Kane. But the Scottish writer is also known for his poetic dialogue, in evidence in the long, dual versions we hear in turn of Una and Ray’s “date” in a seaside town. For the first time, Una appears to be a victim, yet the question she raises is not, “Why did you abuse me?” but “Why did you leave me?”
Truth is an ambiguous commodity in this play which knowingly exploits the audience’s sympathies for both characters. Even names are not reliable, since Ray has changed his and is now called Peter. “These two people have their shared memories,” pointed out Kuriyama. “While they are talking about them, suddenly a lie appears. The only person who knows that is the other character. They talk like they totally believe it. Who is telling the truth? Only the writer knows!”
Ito is an actress without a lot of stage experience, but this rarely shows. She made a couple of slips during her very long speech, but she has the lion’s share of the dialogue to carry. She is superbly directed by Kuriyama, who has her growing more and more seductive, even lounging on the set’s single long table like some office chaise longue. Uchino is not quite convincing in the angriest parts but expresses Ray’s self-hatred well. Both members of the cast play thrillingly against type and do not disappoint, unless you are hoping for a gentle environment in which to see a star.
You’d have a hard job finding something as intense and as explicit — at least in terms of theme — as “Blackbird” on a mainstream Tokyo stage. If there is one real quibble with the production, it is more one of curiosity. Rather than faithfully keeping the British setting, might it have been more intriguing and powerful for audiences here to have seen the story in a Japanese context with Ray as an office worker and Una as the grownup schoolgirl he once assaulted? For Japan, with its gray attitudes as regards minors and its objectification of childlike innocence as a figure of eroticism, surely “Blackbird” is very relevant.
This review originally appeared in the Japan Times, July 24 2009.
July 17 to August 9, at Setagaya Public Theatre