Japan 新作:日本 at the Royal Court
* Onigoro Valley
* 28 hours 01 minute
* Not Yet Midnight

Reviewer's ranting

Saori Chiba, Shoko Matsumura, and Tomoko Kotaka wrote three brand new plays, Onigoro Valley, 28 hours 01 minute, and Not Yet Midnight, respectively, giving us fresh insight into Japanese culture. The plays are an outcome of the writers’ workshops started in 2019 between New National Theatre Tokyo and Royal Court London. The English translations were finally performed over the course of three consecutive nights at the Royal Court. Each play is unique, showcasing the playwrights’ sensitivity and imaginative talent.

We start with Chiba’s Onigoro Valley on the first night, a surreal folk horror set in the woods in Fukushima seven years after the 2011 nuclear disaster. There, two nuclear decontamination workers, Kijimoto and Inuzaki, encounter the beautiful and mysterious sisters, Hachiko and Mamiko, and their father Yamada. Unaware of their supernatural abilities, the workers gradually fall into their clutches…

Kumiko Mendl, playing dual roles as the Old Lady and Yamada, unequivocally stands out in her convincing acting. Her role as the Old Lady especially shines as being both credible and charming. Susan Momoko Hingley’s Mamiko is also deserving of praise.  What is memorable is the sound effects. Sounds of the deep forest, those of a flowing brook or of birds chirping, are created by the actors themselves through their raw voices, or flapping scripts, the creativity of which is surprisingly successful.

Matsumura’s 28 hours 01 minute, performed next, calls into question the social structures of Japan today. A pregnant Aoji is expecting her first baby and influenced by conversations with her strange neighbour Uso, she confronts what it means to be a mother, and the harsh realities of motherhood. The ending is slightly overdone and verged on becoming a slapstick as Aoji talks with her mouth stuffed full of oranges, piggy backing on Uso’s husband, Kogera. However, the Japanese mannerisms that the actors mimic are accurate and entertaining, especially during the conversations between Aoji (Natsumi Kuroda) and Uso (Kanako Nakano). Their superb acting keeps the audience engaged through to the end. In the play, Matsumura tactfully discusses the disadvantages that women face in both the private and public sectors of society, as well as the increasingly dark nature of life in the modern age.

Kotaka’s Not Yet Midnight, performed on the second night, is set during a city-wide power outage. Within the darkness, we see spotlights of various characters’ lives. The script is distinctive with its short and sharp exchanges, making the dialogue hypnotic. The characters in each scene deliver the nuances of Japanese people’s idiosyncrasies superbly well.

In each play, a lighting designer Phil Burke succeeds in creating unique atmospheres. Be it a dark night or a bright morning, Aoji’s flat or Uso’s, the lighting helps to immerse us in each world.

The three writers and Eriko Ogawa, the Artistic director of the New National Theatre Tokyo, participated in a thought-provoking panel discussion after the performance of Not Yet Midnight. Hearing the three writers speak on their views of the difference between an English and Japanese set was extremely interesting. The writers spoke of their surprise when seeing how English directors and actors have a balanced and equal dynamic, when Japanese directors often have a superior air. The casual English set, in the writers’ eyes, improves the creativity of the plays, a factor which makes sense; collaboration and freedom of expression is key in the generation of ingenuity.