The Bee, which opened in the Soho Theatre in 2006, makes its return to London as part of a world tour that takes it to Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong. Its blend of physical theatre that verges on clowning and blank verse will no doubt delight audiences craving a departure from the normal language of spoken theatre, just as it will leave others bemusedly scratching their heads. Some quirky and innovative stage artifices from co-writer, director, actor and Japanese legend Hideki Noda keep the production interesting, yet the highly stylised action sequences (set in the main to music) are not quite elegant enough in their execution to truly convince that this is artful dance rather than pantomime. One is left with the impression that the play is merely a vehicle for experimental direction, and as such, the story fails to stir the emotions.
Set in Tokyo in 1974, Mr Ido, a salary man, returns home to find that an escaped convict, Ogoro, has taken his family hostage. Rather than wait for the inept police force to deliver a messy resolution, he takes matters into his own hands and retaliates by taking the convict’s own family hostage. So begins a brutal game of tit-for-tat whereby each captor rapes and maims their opposite’s wife and son. In dream like semi-balletic sequences set to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Ido is trapped in a cycle of posting severed fingers to his enemy and in turn receiving Ogoro’s gruesome offerings. He fucks Ogoro’s wife, eats, washes and sleeps. He is at once horrified by the violence he is committing, yet also empowered by the fact that he is no longer a victim.
The significance of the bee that torments Ido throughout the play is not especially clear. Perhaps it is a symbol of domestic annoyance reflecting the monotony of the life of a salary man; perhaps Ido’s nagging conscience; perhaps nothing more than a dramatic conceit to show that Ido, like a bee that has stung, must die for his violence. The dreamlike quality of the play, reinforced the narration by Ido of the physical actions he is simultaneously taking, hints at themes beyond the simple hostage narrative. Yet if this is a comment on the role of women in Japanese society, or some more existential imperative to own one’s own actions, this is lost in the calamity of the production.
Each member of the cast plays a variety of characters. Kathryn Hunter, notable for being the first woman to have played King Lear, cuts a strange figure as Ido. Her raspy voice and RSC training lend a deranged yet lyrical quality to the text, which is written in blank verse (with a slight over-reliance on rhyming couplets). Hideki Noda appears as Ogoro’s wife and lends some credibility to the kabuki style set-pieces. Particularly impressive in terms of characterisation is Glyn Pritchard, who plays Ogoro’s much mutilated son as well as a raft of other parts.
Playful at times, funny and occasionally taut, the production is never slow. There are moments of directorial brilliance and the creative team achieve what they set out to achieve in blending various theatrical traditions of both the West and the Orient. However, this constant mish-mash of styles is overwhelming and a great deal of meaning and poignancy is lost in the on-stage cacophony.
The Bee is at Soho Theatre until 11 February 2012.