Rashomon, Riverside Studios, London

A dark conundrum, deep in the woods
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The Independent Culture

Three tall, mobile-looking glasses dominate the design of Yellow Earth's dynamic theatrical version of Rashomon. Whirling round the stage, these objects can become like the shards of a fractured personal identity. By turns translucent and reflective, evoking both mirrors and windows, the glass can be tilted at various angles out of the frames, so as to create false exits and entrances or to metamorphose, say, into the counter at the noodle bar where the detectives repair to mull over the facts of the case they are investigasting. Together, they form a potent symbol of those dubieties of perception which are at the heart of the piece.

It's a tribute to the flair and imaginative integrity of this production (directed by Kwong Loke, Kumiko Mendl and David KS Tse) that one quickly stops comparing it to Akiro Kurosawa's classic movie version from 1950 of the Ryunosuke Akutagawa short stories. The fundamental material is the same – we are given a series of discrepant accounts of the rape of a woman and the death of her husband in a forest – but Philippe Cherbonnier's artful reworking transports the proceedings to contemporary Japan and its peculiar codes of honour, shame and duty.

Tom Wu's vibrant Tajomaru (the rapist) is one of the many casualties of the disastrous economic slump in "islands sinking under the weight of incompetent old men". Refusing to conform to the protocol that is demanded in such circumstances (either a decent suicide, or going to a pretend office each day to keep up appearances), Tajomaru has abandoned his family and become a kind of existential desperado. At which point he hitches a lift with a young, unhappily married couple (Liz Sutherland and Danny Scheinmann) on their long car journey to Kyoto.

With an impressive physical and metaphysical agility, the production uses minimalist ritual means to generate dreadful tension as Tajomaru lures the husband into a forest clearing. Bamboo poles are bewilderingly shifted around him, gradually converging into what looks like a stake.

The sexually swaggering intruder starts to unpeel the sash holding up his trousers and simultaneously binds his male victim. And in one of the differing versions of the ensuing rape, Sutherland shifts from under the thrusting Wu and sits by his side, as though a part of her had become the detached, stricken observer of her ordeal.

The conundrum of what actually happened in the forest – was the husband killed by Tajomaru, or by his wife (unable to bear his having witnessed her shame), or did he die by his own hand (because of the double betrayal)? – is rotated in a manner that manages to embrace a spry, intellectual jokiness, without ever violating a sense of the immense gravity of the predicament.

For example, the husband's account is here framed by a play-within-a-play – a drama, we're informed, which was written at speed by an enterprising Japanese author to capitalise on the public's prurient curiosity about the case. So Danny Scheinmann appears as a stage version of the husband's ghost, watched by the detectives in the audience. This spook's testimony has, of course, no legal validity, but it seems to the police to be as imaginatively compelling as any statement that they have yet heard in the investigation room.

Reality and illusion are further confounded, as Rashomon and the inset play conclude at the same moment, with the detectives agreeing to continue their speculations in the theatre bar.

The only jarring note in the production is struck by the kitschy modern songs of Kazuko Hohki's crooning crone. Otherwise, this version of Rashomon produces its own intriguing, self-consistent world – and one which is most emphatically not mere Kurosawa-lite.

Until 10 November (020-8237 1111)

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