Gary Griffin's production of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures is having a timely revival at the Donmar, where it opened earlier this week, on Monday June 30.
The musical is about the opening up of Japan to Western influences by the arrival, in the mid-nineteenth century, of an American naval force. This was an opening up that was to have unexpected consequences, with Japan at first resisting then embracing modernisation and Western technology. The technology was to be turned against the West - first in the form of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and then in the Second World War - but it was Western technology at its most powerful (the original version of "shock and awe") that finally prevailed, after the dropping of two atomic bombs on the Japanese mainland in 1945.
Pacific Overtures is then, in one sense an epic play, and has consequently tended to be given large-scale productions, but Gary Griffin, who has directed the show in the States as well, emphasises the intimacy of the piece, which he sees as having a pared-down quality reminiscent of Japanese Noh theatre. As few actors as possible are used to tell the story, which is reduced, here at the Donmar, to its essentials.
There are references in the production to the later history of American/Japanese relations - specifically the nuclear bomb, but the evening is a subtle one rather than a political polemic, and like all Sondheim musicals contains few hummable melodies (of the sort Coward, Novello and Lloyd Webber churned out) but plently of exciting music and intelligent lyrics.
The contrast (and potential clash) between West and East has been the subject of drama since Aeschylus wrote "The Persians", about the clash between Western democracy (in the shape of the Ancient Greeks) and the tyranny of an Eastern empire, in the shape of the Persian invasion of Greece.
These days it is the West which tends to be portrayed as the baddy - as in "The Madness of George Dubya" at the Arts or, in an equally satirical but more affectionately nostalgic play, Peter Nichol's "Privates on Parade", last seen at the Donmar - and the American exploitation of Japan has been given a famously melodic treatment in Puccini's opera Madam Butterfly. Sondheim's Pacific Overtures has less tunes but rather more political and cultural thought, and this is a rare production that is well worth seeing.
Pacific Ovvertures is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until Saturday September 6.
Friday July 4