THEATRE / No sight for sore eyes: The Great Doctor Yabuhara - Lyric Hammersmith

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IT'S JUST as well, you sometimes find yourself thinking, that blind people can't catch a glimpse of The Great Doctor Yabuhara, for Hisashi Inoue's play - which focuses on an 18th-century blind man who murders, blackmails and thieves his way up the social ladder to become Kengyo, the highest rank of authority for a sightless person - is pretty robust about the pitfalls and the pratfalls of being blind.

Often the approach is just traditional bawdy knockabout. There's one scene in which an old blind man comes home in the middle of some inventive lovemaking between his wife and his young blind apprentice. Convincing him that the orgasmic yelps he heard were the sound of her grief over a sad picture book, the wife relates its tearjerking story to him, while the apprentice brings her to a far from literary climax. On other occasions, farce collides with pain. The protagonist, Suginoichi (Yasuyoshi Hara), catches his mother in flagrante with a sighted lover who, assuming the intruder to be her next client, jeers at the woman's ugliness and at the convenience for her of having a blind customer.

There's a mischievious contradictoriness about much of the play. 'I eat potatoes in order to maintain dignity as a human being,' announces the respected blind scholar Hokiichi (Takashi Fujiki) daintily skewering one. This episode quickly relieves him of his dignity, though. While the scholar discourses on the importance to the blind of learning, a bored Suginoichi crams potatoes into his bulging mouth and gets an attack of hiccups he can only hide by virtually strangling himself. The scholar is left looking such a pompous prat that you begin to think Suginoichi is right to regard money, rather than knowledge, as the key to winning respect from the sighted world.

But then ambiguity is built into the play's presentation of the hero and his rise. On one level, he represents the underdog triumphing over the odds: there's consequently an air of bad-taste festivity about his murders which are accompanied by ridiculous sound effects, blood-red lighting and crocodile tears from the blind narrator. This latter's repeated interventions also systematically undercut any seriousness.

The other perspective on the protagonist is provided by the young woman Oichi (Akiko Iwase), a former lover, who rises from the dead as a deranged reminder of the past and the rural values he has forsworn in his quest for urban success. Finally, the new-broom Shogun uses him as a scapegoat, his blindness an emblem of his turpitude. A vast effigy of him is 'trisected' and a disgusting swatch of bloody noodles flops out of his neck to the great jubilation of the onlookers. From dubious role model to unfair example; at the end, it's the moral vision of the sighted world that looks impaired.

To 20 Mar, Lyric, Hammersmith, London W6 (081-741 2311).

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