Sondheim meets the minimalist


At the Barbican currently, you can see The Elephant Vanishes, a brilliant multi-media show about the surreal stresses of living in the hyper-modernity of contemporary Japan. By a neat coincidence, the Donmar Warehouse now unveils a revival of Pacific Overtures, the 1976 Stephen Sondheim musical that dramatises the ironic origins of Japan's hi-tech capitalist frenzy. In 1853, American gunboats, under the command of Commodore Perry, forced an end to Japan's 250 years of inward-looking isolation from a restless world in which (to quote the lyrics of the opening song): "Kings are burning somewhere/ Wheels are turning somewhere/ Trains are being run/ Wars are being won/ Somewhere, out there - not here."

The director Gary Griffin's powerful vision of the piece is a restaging for the Donmar of his acclaimed Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production. Unlike Hal Prince's lavish Broadway premiere (which lost its entire investment) or the overblown full operatic treatment it received at ENO, this version of Pacific Overtures is characterised by its expressive minimalism. The show is performed with the audience seated round a bare rectangular wooden stage. The all-male multi-ethnic cast, drawn from America and Britain, play multiple roles, with identifying details - the belt of a kimono; a sprig of blossom etc - added to outfits of basic black. This procedure throws considerable emphasis on the actors' movements, which are here stylised to a sometimes deliberately parodic degree.

The use of formal Japanese dramatic techniques (the onnagata tradition of female impersonation; the Reciter figure et al) has always been a key feature of Pacific Overtures, but this production's stripped-back clarity serves to heighten one's sense of just how peculiar and complicated a piece it is. Sondheim is not offering a straightforward account of the way Japan was opened up to foreign influence. Instead, he gives us a Western composer's idea of how these events might be dramatised from the Japanese point of view.

The resulting weird American-kabuki hybridisation reaches a climax at the end of the first half when Commodore Perry is presented, in the culturally conditioned Japanese perception of him, as a mane-thrashing demon lion-king with a stars-and-stripes topper, who turns his customary dance into a vindictive assertion of US superiority, balefully shifting from kabuki stomps to a triumphant high-kicking American cakewalk. Because of its intimacy and its openness about the artificial nature of the performance, Griffin's staging never lets you forget that you are watching an elaborately mediated report with several levels of irony.

It's a musical of ideas more than of character, and at times the proceedings can feel a little desiccated. But the excellent cast skilfully encompasses the wide range of moods, and pitches the material with poetic delicacy and comic vigour. The performers excel in numbers such as "Please, You" where a hilarious line-up of foreign diplomats, bent on getting trading concessions from the Shogun, sing over one another in their national musical stereotypes, from the French representative's ooh-la-la hymn to "Détente" to the glib Gilbertian patter song of the Victorian Brit.

At the end the nervily dynamic, thoroughly Westernised song "Next" jumps us forward to the feverishly capitalist Japanese society of today. The actors run on to the stage in turn, relaying news items and economic statistics (updated to include the staggering success of Pokémon cards).

The simple message in past stagings of the show was that Japan learnt to imitate and surpass the Western imperialists ("Never mind the small disaster/ Who's the stronger, who's the faster!/ Let the pupil show the master/ Next!"). The implied view that the Japanese became more barbaric than the barbarians is modified here with an explosion that briefly floors the cast and seems to be designed to evoke Hiroshima, and by a reference to September 11. We are told that in the aftermath of that atrocity, the Japanese defence force was sent abroad for the first time. It's left as a moot point whether these additions complicate or contradict the implacable forward impetus of the song. All in all, a production that offers an admirable reconsideration of a provocative piece.

  By Paul Taylor
01 July 2003
The Independent