PARIS – With its title “The Bee,” this work co-written in 2006 by leading dramatist Hideki Noda and Irish playwright Colin Teevan immediately brought to mind Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and the ghastly, unbidden and unexplained changes to which the protgonist of that seminal novella is subjected.
In this play inspired by a short story from science-fiction master Yasutaka Tsutsui, though, the changes Mr. Ido undergoes before our eyes are all too well explained as he strives in vain to return to his life’s scuttled normality.
Performed last week in English with French subtitles at the Theatre de Chaillot in Paris, the stage at this grand venue across the River Seine from the Eiffel Tower at first seemed small and bare and reminiscent of an experimental or university theater — except that through the soaring plate-glass windows the tower was perfectly framed and lit in the late-evening spring light. The light of going home.
It was only when Noda appeared, clutching his briefcase, that the natural light was closed off by dark curtains in a simple effect that made him seem even more fragile and meek. His way back to his house is blocked and the media are swarming.
Ido’s confusion is intensified by the assault of two reporters who wrap him in cables and shove in his face cameras that only moments before had seemed to be chairs. In fact the transformation we are about to witness in a human is reflected in that of the stage. Brown paper hangs from the ceiling, curving to the front so that as the actors walk around, images of doors, windows and off-stage actions are projected on it, while the few props change their function to sometimes even become human.
In a farcical exchange with a senior policeman named Dodoyama, Ido learns that the road is blocked off because an escaped prisoner, a murderer named Ogoro, has broken into his house and is demanding that his wife and son be brought to see him.
Ido’s relief is short-lived, though, as he’s told that his wife and child are being held hostage by the killer. Then he learns there is nothing he can do because he won’t be allowed to speak to the criminal in case he antagonizes him.
Instead, Dodoyama and the frenetic media (portrayed by two actors and an incredible amount of string) want him to slide nicely into the role of a tragic, hard-done-by victim. At this point in the play, Noda’s strength in portraying Ido’s confusion, the destruction of the trust he had in the police’s “procedures” and his perplexity at both those in uniform and the media provided some of the play’s most poignant humor.
While there were laugh-out-loud moments to follow as Ido forcefully proceeded to inhabit the role of avenger and the banalities of his and Ogoru’s relationship played out before us, I felt the humor being intentionally drained out of the play — which left me shocked by the guffaws that sexual violence and child abuse elicited from some of those around me.
The rape scenes were among the most difficult parts to watch, and in an interview, Noda — who is also artistic director of Tokyo Metropolitan Arts Theatre in Ikebukuro — has said that it was because such content disturbed him that, in the original production, he played the role of Ogoru’s wife and a female actor (Kathryn Hunter) took the part of Ido. Yet as the director of this production, he was perhaps not convinced the swap lightened the play’s troubling gender politics, since he chose not to act a female role again.
Instead, as Ido, he shared with the appreciative Paris audience his incredible energy and focus as he and the other cast members all pushed the audience to witness a very human transformation.
As a woman in the audience said afterward, “The play was gruesome.” And it was indeed awful to behold how the veneer of civilization is so thin, and how the horrible can so quickly become normal in the vicious circle that violence and revenge engenders.