The Diver, Soho Theatre, London

Murder, myth and mind games
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The Independent Culture

A contemporary murder story becomes entwined with Noh drama, ancient fable and an 11th-century Japanese novel in The Diver. This bewitching new piece reunites actress Kathryn Hunter, dramatist Colin Teevan and the celebrated Japanese theatre-maker Hideki Noda. They scored a hit a couple of years ago with The Bee, an unsettling tale of tit-for-tat revenge in which a Japanese businessman turned the tables on the convict who had taken his wife and child hostage by the brutally simple expedient of holding to ransom the convict's own wife and child.

Revenge also lurks at the heart of The Diver, a show which – in its blending of Western and Eastern traditions and its merger of the modern and the mythic – demonstrates why Noda has been lauded by Yukio Ninagawa, the doyen of that style of cross-cultural theatre.

The piece focuses on the real-life case of a woman who was arrested while wandering the streets of Fuchu City. Her burnt hands and charred clothing and the fingerprints found on a lighter suggest that she was responsible for a horrific arson attack in which two children died. But the police are unable to extract a confession from her because she cannot remember who she is. They have 23 days to bring her to book. A psychiatrist is appointed and the piece shifts seamlessly between the sessions in his office and the range of vivid imaginary locations – everything from ocean bed to 11th-century sports festival – that are conjured up by the unstable woman's switches of identity.

The rational explanation of her behaviour is that she is suffering from a dissociation of personality because she can't face up to her wicked deed. What the creators of this piece have taken from Noh drama is the idea of the unreconciled spirit that returns and haunts the earth seeking redress and atonement. It's common to ask people "What possessed you to do that?" The Diver seems to propose that, in certain cases, there may be a literal truth in such a metaphor – that, at the moment of committing an extreme crime, the mind of the perpetrator may be taken over by another spirit, whose unappeased hatred is working by proxy through the current crime.

This certainly gives a mythic and somewhat incoherent twist to the notion of diminished responsibility and I doubt that it would wash in any court of law. But the production's breathtaking transitions between past and present and its bold fusion of divergent theatrical conventions succeed in creating a powerfully persuasive sense that the drive towards vengeance is immemorial – each individual act of retribution one in an endless series of mirror images.

With just the slightest changes of inflection or twists of the body, Hunter, the virtuoso of protean performance, role-swaps superbly between the bewildered criminal, the deep-sea diver who rescues a jewel stolen by a dragon-queen, a masked demon, and the spirit of Rokujo, the Emperor's rejected mistress who, in The Tales of Genji, avenged herself on his pregnant wife.

Performed on Catherine Chapman's striking set of translucent screens and underscored by the wailing and percussive thump of ritualised Noh music, the production makes witty and haunting use of traditional elements – fans, say, becoming mobile phones when shut, and slices of pizza consumed by the cops when half-opened. The fateful encounter at the sporting festival is beautifully evoked by bolts of silk draped over parasols. In one of the most disturbing sections, the woman performs an abortion on herself by pulling out a blood-red ribbon from her belly. At first, she cradles the resulting bundle, and then, in a sudden seizure of violence, smashes it again and again on the ground, her action causing mortal convulsions in the body of the Emperor's pregnant spouse (who is flutteringly played by Noda). An unforgettable image of the compulsive but futile nature of revenge.



To 19 July (020-7478 0100)

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