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The Diver

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Barbican has the legend “do something different” enshrined in its logo, but the same job description could be as easily applied to the Soho Theatre, where the unexpected so often crops up in the name of the new. The Diver by the Japanese actor/director Hideki Noda and the Irish playwright Colin Teevan is nothing if not weird, a strange dream-like mix of interrogation, psychological case study and shifting narrative.

Kathryn Hunter plays a woman who has killed her lover’s two children in a crime of arson, but she is also possessed by the spirit of an eleventh century Japanese mistress bent on vengeance. Noda himself plays the inquisitive psychiatrist in a production he has directed as a playful meditation on Noh theatre techniques of stylized movement, a central female character (known as a “wig” role) and terse dialogue that threaten to become poetry.

And with his designer Catherine Chapman and sound expert Paul Arditti (using music by the Kabuki dance maestro Denzaemon Tanaka XIII), Noda has conjured a fluid stage world where the investigation seeps into rituals of celebrity culture, traditional festivals and the depths of the ocean. This last location is a reference to the Noh play in which a pearl diver salvages a jewel stolen by the dragon queen, but the symbol explodes at the end to encompass the terrors of lost love and child killing.

No actress is better than Hunter at suggesting layers of experience and despair, and she manages to convince us that she is a plausibly motivated Medea, a royal concubine and spurned mistress, a masked demon and “a bush that has no root.” The intense purity of the performance suggests a complex spirit of hurt, passion and revenge.

The mystery is instigated when the woman is found wandering alone in a city by night, her hands burnt and raw and the play attempts to frame her identity in the joint location of a police cell and psychiatrist’s study. The tragedy is not so much a personal one as the inability of us all to arrive at explanations. This unusual, challenging scenario is driven by Hunter but densely populated, too, by Noda and the support playing of Harry Gostelow and Glyn Pritchard.

-Michael Coveney


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