Pacific Overtures, Donmar Warehouse, London

Powerful reworking of Sondheim's musical of gunboats and kimonos
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The Independent Culture

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.

Director Gary Griffin's powerful vision of the piece is a re-staging 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 on a bare rectangular wooden stage, with the audience seated on all four sides. The multi-ethnic cast play multiple roles, with identifying details - the belt of a kimono; a sprig of blossom - added to near-identical outfits of basic black. This tactic throws great weight on the actors' gestures which are stylised to a sometimes deliberately parodic degree.

The production's stripped-back clarity heightens one's sense of just how peculiar and complicated a piece this 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 it 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 Japanese perception of him, as a mane-thrashing demon lion-king with a stars-and-stripes topper who turns his traditional dance into a vindictive assertion of US superiority, shifting from kabuki stomps to a high-kicking American cakewalk.

It's a musical of ideas more than of character and, at times, the proceedings can feel a little desiccated. But the excellent cast pitch the material with poetic delicacy and comic vigour. At the end, the show leaps from the 19th century to the present. There is now a reference to 11 September, telling us that in 2002 the Japanese defence force was sent abroad for the first time in the aftermath of that atrocity. An explosion briefly evokes Hiroshima. These additions complicate the musical's original message that Japan learnt its expansionist techniques from the West all too well. An admirably considered reworking of a provocative piece.

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