Thursday, 3 July 2014

Theatre review: Pacific Overtures

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This was the second public performance.

Famous as one of Stephen Sondheim's most complex and ambitious (trans: unpopular) works, Pacific Overtures follows a turning point in the history of Japan. Having got rid of the Dutch a couple of centuries earlier, the Japanese have practically turned isolationism into a religion: Leaving the country is illegal, but worse would be for a foreigner to set foot on Japanese soil, which would be viewed as something close to sacrilege. But by 1853 preserving this sanctity is looking less and less possible, as American ships arrive, demanding to deliver a letter from the President. With the Emperor still a child, and the shōgun an incompetent, it's left to low-ranking samurai Kayama (Oli Reynolds) and English-speaking fisherman Majiro (Emanuel Alba) to try and come up with a solution.

I've not seen Pacific Overtures before, so it took me a little while to get used to Michael Strassen's highly stylised production, which features an all-male cast and borrows influences from kabuki and butoh. But, for a show famous for its difficult score, the opening number "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea" is surprisingly accessible, although later songs do throw in quite a complex number of influences both Eastern and Western, with even a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan seeming to creep in once the American ships are joined by British, Dutch and French ones.


Although there's still a few wobbles both technical and in terms of forgotten lines, for the most part this is looking pretty solid already, with some strong vocals from Reynolds and some very impressive, stylised dance. I did feel a bit uncomfortable though at the fact that only one actor in a cast of 13 appeared to have an East Asian background. I know the whole aesthetic is overtly anti-naturalistic, and the Westerners are presented as even bigger grotesques than the Japanese characters, but with the amount of controversy in recent years about a lack of roles for minority actors1 it's a shame there wasn't a bit more visible effort to get at least a few more East Asian actors into the cast. Maybe the argument will be that Miss Saigon has dried up the talent pool of Asian musical theatre actors.


A feeling of discomfort at all the yellowface even distracted me from the constant parade of topless men, but it must be said that Jean Gray should have a biscuit for taking time out from her busy schedule with the X-Men, to design all those loose and skimpy costumes. And the Union is very hot in this weather, which unfortunately presents a different kind of distraction. But, trying to put these things aside, Pacific Overtures came across a lot better than its "difficult" reputation would suggest, and the production is slick and inventive.

Pacific Overtures by Stephen Sondheim, John Weidman and Hugh Wheeler is booking until the 2nd of August at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

1of course, this is also an all-male cast and there's been a lot of talk about the lack of roles for women lately as well; but this is produced by Sasha Regan so it's probably fair to say her membership of the sisterhood was revoked long ago.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pleased to see your comments about yellow face - you are one of the few to address the issue and to admit your discomfiture. Thank you. It is an emotive issue for East Asian performers and community as it signals an acceptance by the cultural majority that it is alright to appropriate East Asian culture but deny East Asians the opportunity of being visible within that culture. Strassen, Regan and Callen are all complicit in brushing over this issue, abetted by the majority of the media it seems.

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