Into the Numbers, Finborough Theatre, London, review: An absorbing production

The American playwright Christopher Chen's play commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Nanking massacre

 

Paul Taylor
Monday 08 January 2018 12:17
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Elizabeth Chan cuts an intense, earnest, totally uncynical or sentimentalised figure in Georgie Staight’s absorbing production
Elizabeth Chan cuts an intense, earnest, totally uncynical or sentimentalised figure in Georgie Staight’s absorbing production

It’s the 80th anniversary of the Nanking massacre, one of the most heinous atrocities of the twentieth century. Starting in December 1937 and extending over six weeks, the Japanese Imperial Army subjected the inhabitants of Nanking, then China’s capital city, to unspeakable savagery and carnage – the rape, torture, and murder in killing competitions of 300,000 civilians and the systematic mass execution of soldiers.

Into the Numbers, by the Obie-winning American playwright Christopher Chen, is not a straightforward commemoration. Its central focus is on Iris Chang, author of the 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, which became an international best seller and established her as a vociferous advocate for victims of Japanese war crimes. She committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 36.

The piece takes the format of a typical lecture/interview/Q and A session that then starts to spiral into something more surreal. The interviewer (Timothy Knightley) morphs into her husband and her doctor seems to wonder about the wisdom of “devoting [her] life to exposing the worst in people”. There’s no end, he argues, to the injustices she could uncover. Tireless and terribly tired, Elizabeth Chan cuts an intense, earnest, totally uncynical or sentimentalised figure in Georgie Staight’s absorbing production.

The production is adept at negotiating the tricky range of tones in the play – from the black comedy of the interview with Mark Ota’s deputy Japanese ambassador (whose twisted refusal to make an official apology blithely abolishes the notion of free will and accountability) to the spellbinding encounter in which Iris begs to know why Minnie Vautrin (Amy Molloy), an American missionary and heroine of the Safety Zone, committed suicide after her return to America in 1940. “Weaker people who saw these things survived.” “I saw the Devil eat God alive” recounts Minnie, in a hair-raising sequence that makes you wonder whether Chen has based this on journal entries by the missionary and rather hope, for her sake, that he has imagined it.

In the end, Into the Numbers celebrates a writer who, for the best of reasons, thought that we must stare difficult facts in the face if we are ever to move forward as human beings but who was rendered too vulnerable and exhausted by her bipolar illness to set up a psychic defence against despair. There’s a heartbreaking moment when her husband praises her for not sleepwalking through life and she replies: “Sleepwalkers know something I don’t know. The value of ignorance”. It is not meant as a back-handed compliment to say that this concise, impressionistic work leaves one wanting to discover more about both the Massacre and Iris Chang.

Until 27 January (finboroughtheatre.co.uk)

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