‘The Bee’ in Paris: Take #2

by Mana Katsura

Special To The Japan Times

Last week, the Stage page featured a Paris resident’s take on an English-language version of “The Bee,” a disturbing drama cowritten by Hideki Noda and Irish playwright Colin Teevan that was performed there this month in a 300-seat section of the Theatre de Chaillot.

This week, for another angle on this groundbreaking production directed by Noda, we offer insights into the deep and dark play from a Tokyo-based critic who’s seen all the many versions since its 2006 premier, and who was there for the last show in Paris on May 17.

On a set made up of large pieces of paper hanging from the ceiling and a minimum of daily necessities for props, four actors spun a delicate tale of a chain of retribution. In this production, Hideki Noda played a regular Japanese businessman named Mr. Ido, and three English actors (two men and a woman) took multiple roles in the 75-minute tragedy that combines black humor with issues such as human dignity and the role of the media.

The drama kicks off when, after Ido learns that Ogoro, an escaped prisoner, has broken into his home and taken his wife and child hostage, he visits Ogoro’s wife and child at their home in hopes they can help to free his family.

However, when Ogoro still refuses to let his wife and child go, the businessman undergoes a frightening transformation. After barricading himself in with Ogoro’s family as hostages, every day he cuts off one of the 6-year-old boy’s fingers and has a policeman deliver it to Ogoro. Ogoro also sends the fingers of Ido’s 6-year-old son to him. As well, the men have intimate relations with each other’s wives. Then, while this activity continues to repeat, the children die in the leadup to the play’s chilling climax.

Since 2006, in performances around the world, the cast has changed little by little, but a gender swap with the actress Kathryn Hunter playing Ido, and Noda playing Ogoro’s wife, had become established. However, for the Paris staging, Noda — who drew both shocked gasps and laughs from the audience — for the first time took on the role of Ido, while “The Bee” regular Glyn Pritchard played Ogoro’s son and Petra Massey and David Charles played Ogoro’s wife and the police inspector, respectively.

Speaking afterward, Noda said, “I told Petra what I learned by playing Ogoro’s wife — how a person who suffers violence is so dominated that she loses the urge to run away. There is this expressionless state you fall into through exhaustion at your own powerlessness, when you can’t save your child no matter how much you love him — and it’s important to make the audience understand there are people forced to get used to such terrible circumstances.”

On stage, indeed, seeing Ogoro’s wife making meals for Ido, who she should hate, and the vacant way she’d put one of her own son’s fingers in an envelope, brought to mind people under the control of a dictator. Even more worryingly, it all gradually begins to reflect a universal world in which a dreadful crisis might await anyone at any time.

But danger doesn’t just lurk in the extraordinary, since — as Noda said they’d discussed while rehearsing, “The minute an ordinarily kind person becomes a soldier on a battleground, they are suddenly capable of horrible things, and this mechanism is certainly not limited to particular kinds of people.”

Watching “The Bee” in this ancient capital that so stirs the spirit, I wondered again about the bees buzzing in and out of the play — insects that we learn are Ido’s greatest phobia. Well, perhaps because of the extraordinary setting, it occurred to me for the first time that bees may represent a fear deep within the soul of even a brute who has rejected all empathy and conscience — that they may be transcending, godlike beings, no less.

And even after seeing this play many times, I marveled anew at how it so deeply explores the subconscious and its secrets.

This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.