Sunday, 13 September 2015

Theatre review: See What I Wanna See

The plot of Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See spans from mediaeval Japan to 21st century New York, which makes it sound like a David Mitchell novel (not that David Mitchell, the other one.) In fact the 2005 musical is based on three short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, presented without an obvious connection, other than the general theme of different perspectives to the same events. The mediaeval Japanese story is “Kesa and Morito,” which kicks off each of the acts with the end of the affair between a married woman (Cassie Compton) and her lover (Mark Goldthorp.) We get a different viewpoint in each half, with an ambiguous ending that sees one or both of the lovers come to a sticky end. The vast majority of the show however takes place in New York, the first act’s “R Shomon” is a noir story set in 1951, when a gangster (Marc Elliott) confesses to raping a singer (Compton) and murdering her husband in Central Park.

It seems simple but this isn’t the only story – the wife also confesses to the murder, while the ghost of the husband (Goldthorp) uses a Medium (Sarah Ingram) to testify that it was actually suicide.

The second act’s main story is “Gloryday,” which takes place in 2002. Consequently it’s a 9/11 story, which follows a camp priest (Jonathan Butterell) who was close to Ground Zero and helped out on the day; it resulted in him losing his faith. He comes up with a cruel practical joke on the grieving faithful, starting a rumour that a miracle will take place in Central Park, and standing back to watch their disappointment.

A lauded off-Broadway composer, LaChiusa writes the sort of songs that are meant to progress the narrative, designed to be musically complex and challenging rather than enjoyable. I can usually get on well enough with musicals like this that aren’t based around traditional foot-tapping numbers, but this isn’t the case here. (There’s a song list in the programme; but there seems little point to it when it’s hard to tell when one song ends and the next begins.) The stories’ plots are pretty slight, so the fairly monotonous tunes only exacerbate the feeling of this being a handful of haiku stretched out to two hours.

And while the performers are good, especially vocally, Adam Lenson’s production doesn’t convince that there’s any reason these three stories should be told together, other than their shared author and the overall theme from the title. Perhaps it was the false expectation of a David Mitchell-style (not that one) overarching narrative that meant I was bound to be disappointed when it didn’t materialise; turns out See What I Wanna See wasn’t what I wanted to see.

See What I Wanna See by Michael John LaChiusa, based on short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is booking until the 3rd of October at Jermyn Street Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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