PARIS – After his acclaimed French debut last year with “The Bee,” news of Hideki Noda’s return to the Theatre National de Chaillot in central Paris with his pop-war-and-Olympian extravaganza “Egg” created quite a buzz of anticipation.
Premiered in 2012 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre where Noda is artistic director, the play starts with a very large, very open stage strewn with debris. Soon, an usherette (played by Noda) arrives, leading a tour group of giggling schoolgirls across and down off the stage, then passing in front and back up stairs on the other side as she explains that this is a theater undergoing renovations — not the ruined future it appeared to be at first sight.
Then one of the girls finds a play, the tour guide incomprehensibly runs off to Australia, and the theater’s artistic director (Noda again) explains that this found work, titled “Egg,” is by the venerated avant-garde poet, playwright and filmmaker Shuji Terayama (1935-1983), a reference that situates the story in a not-too-distant past of real movements for peace and true underground theater.
Terayama was also the last Japanese invitee to the Chaillot before Noda — with “Instructions aux domestiques” (“Instructions for Servants”) in 1982 — hence the abandoned manuscript was there to be “found.”
Generally I prefer the unfathomable, but Noda’s nod to the surrealist adage of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table (the phrase appeared on the subtitle screen at one point) seemed to miss one thing: the possibilities created by bringing just two such things together in an incongruous place.
That said, the play’s featured team game, played with fresh, unboiled eggs, was definitely surreal. However, like all the action, the first match, against China, was played off-stage.
Politics are ever-present in “Egg,” and are thrown around in often unsubtle metaphors, while the work is littered with incomprehensible references such as the names of the team’s captain and its new star — which the program said were those of the Japanese bronze medallist and the Ethiopian gold medalist in the men’s marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, respectively.
That was the Olympics that let Japan begin to forget — though it’s not the Olympics the team is training for — at least not at first. We fall back through time, taken there by the Owner (strongly played by Natsuko Akiyama) and her video introducing the sport of egg she had sought to feature in the 1940 Olympics that never happened, but was scheduled for Tokyo.
The video shows how the sport’s true history is that it was developed by nurses at the infamous wartime Unit 731 (“Nana-san-ichi Butai” in Japanese) in the puppet state of Manchukuo (present-day northeast China) — with the “egg” tying us to biological- and chemical-warfare testing and lethal human experimentation carried out there that is the shame of not just the Imperial Japanese Army, but of humanity itself.
Through all this, we constantly bump against the pop power of Ichie Ichigo (Eri Fukatsu) a shrill singer with a love life as confusing as the masses of people crossing the stage. The music by Ringo Sheena captured the cool of the best Japanese pop, and the staging was wonderful — the movement, use of props and song-and-dance routines all had great energy and drew the audience in.
That recipe should work. Instead, the audience was reserved and most seemed to leave the theater shell-shocked — perhaps less by the intense subject matter than the play’s length and sensory overload. With themes and references as diverse as war crimes and angura (Japanese for the cultural “underground”), and so much scattered in between, it is hardly surprising.
In the end, it was perhaps just all too much and too unfocused, so the moment of cracking the egg and seeing what’s inside was scrambled — especially for anyone with little or no knowledge of the historical intricacies.
“Egg” is playing till April 8 in Osaka, then April 16-19 in Kitakyushu. For details, visit nodamap.com/egg.