Power struggles


Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures has been a grand opera, a tiny chamber studio play with songs, and a huge glitzy Broadway musical, but I doubt if even a village amateur director would conceive of it as a parody pantomime. In a co-production between the Donmar and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Gary Griffin has imposed a mockery of kabuki conventions. Thus, he employs an all-male, multiracial cast but has them sendup the characters, especially the women. No visual cliche is left unexplored, although the actors turn in uniformly strong performances. It is as though he envisages kabuki not as it is, but as it might be seen through the eyes of a non-Japanese audience--as a jumble of shrieks, shouts, incomprehensible rituals and weird stock characters.

When you have to fish for cheap laughs by mispronouncing the names of Japanese towns, you've rather missed the point of Sondheim's exquisitely delicate score, which becomes less Japanese as the evening progresses.

Pacific Overtures is not only about the Japanese slowly and willingly allowing themselves to be invaded by the west; it is also about the eternal conflict between the big picture and the details. Sondheim, his collaborator Hugh Wheeler, and John Weidman, who wrote the book on which the show is based, switch focus, now concentrating on a single young woman in a park, now on world economic history. Here we find a director trying to make his name by turning a gentle satire into a circus with a broad humour that betrays the subtlety of thought behind it.

  New Statesman , July 21, 2003, by Sheridan Morley