This is the second collaboration between the Japanese director and actor, Hideki Noda, the actress Kathryn Hunter and the Dublin-born playwright Colin Teevan, to grace the stage of Soho Theatre.
The first was The Bee in which Hunter – never one to let gender dictate which roles she can take – played a Japanese salaryman. The Diver is somewhat different. It blends two ancient sources, a Noh play called Pearl Diver Woman and the classic Japanese novel Tales Of Genji, with a true-life crime story.
Kathryn Hunter plays Yumi, a woman who is accused of, in a jealous rage, setting a fire that killed two children. The police find her wandering the streets with soot flecked clothing and no memory. Frustrated by her claims not to know who she is, the police dispatch her to a psychiatrist to get to the bottom of her identity (or lack of it) crisis. He discovers that the people she is claiming to be are all characters from Tales Of Genji.
The psychiatrist’s office, with its paper screen doors (which disconcertingly clank like those of a prison cell), is often pulled apart, literally, to become the world of Yumi’s dreaming. A sofa becomes a boat on a river and masked figures leap up from behind the cushions. Billowing lengths of coloured silk are used to denote shifts in character and, in one instance, a clot of red silk is used to symbolise blood and viscera. There is also a sudden, jarring gear-change, where ancient Japan crashes into modern Japan via a tacky game show with a violently irritating host in a nasty jacket.
The parallels between the woman’s story and that of the Genji’s mistress become stronger, more pronounced, as the play progresses; their pain is shared, their anguish and their betrayal become one. There is a pregnant wife and broken promises. The fallout is bloody. Kathryn Hunter gives an absorbing performance as the woman, spending much of the time scuttling and hunched, yet capable of sudden moments of grace, and Noda, starring as the psychiatrist, is suitably understated, elegantly morphing into Genji’s demure wife towards the end of the play. Harry Gostelow and Glyn Pritchard as the Prosecutor and the aggressive Police Chief respectively provide strong support.
Noda’s production does not blend the traditions of Noh with the devices of modern theatre with the same degree of fluidity that Ben Yeoh’s Nakamitsu achieved, but though it is easy to lose the thread of what it is going on at times, it is still manages to be evocative and moving, replete with striking visual imagery: the two lovers, masked, sharing an invisible cigarette; the men chomping blithely on take-out food, with folded paper fans standing in for pizza slices; and that length of red fabric that speaks simply yet strikingly of violence done, both emotional and physical, and violence to come.