National Theatre Wales and New National Theatre, Tokyo
Written by Alan Harris
Directed by John E. McGrath
In many ways it is an irrelevance to offer a conventional review of a theatrical production that defies most conventions. In conception, evolution, implication and reception, National Theatre Wales’ first international collaboration, here with New National Theatre, Tokyo, of Alan Harris’ new play, The Opportunity of Efficiency, is not a ‘conventional’ theatrical experience. So, in the interest of Efficiency, let’s approach this from the front door, rather than the stage door.
The play is in the round – a central hexagonal structure, in truth – that has at its core the office of IS-Bio 7, a biotech research laboratory. The peripheries of this central office double as other settings, all of them dimly lit, stale and interior. There is nothing that constitutes fresh air in The Opportunity… The play unfolds in cubes of light, blasts of music separate each scene and the plot moves forward in tight air-packed pockets of dialogue, specked with light humour and well-defined characters.
So what of plot? Business process analyst Ken Lomax (Toyohara Kosuke) is brought in to align and improve the efficiency of the IS-Bio office at exactly the same time as an important scientific discovery is made by driven and focused Iffy Scott (Miyamoto Yuko) and her team. The team is made up of the frowning and disillusioned Jennifer Field (Shubuya Haruka) and uber-youth whizz-kid, straight out of CSI lab dysfunctional, Jasper Hardy (Tajima Yusei). At the top, and slightly off-centre, of this tree is Mr Grant (Nakajima Shu), an eccentric scientist-turned bureaucrat who is both catalyst and brick wall for much of the tension that follows, and his wife (played by Tajima Reiko).
The initial starting points for each character make for somewhat obvious journeys for them as individuals, and this all feeds into a feeling of well-trodden, if satisfying, fare as the play progresses. Each character will learn something, each character will soften, open up. The cynics will have their souls awakened, the optimists will be somewhat darkened for their encounter with the ‘real world’. The shifts are the stuff of good, and occasionally great, drama. It is important with this kind of ‘issue’-based material that the audience feel the characters are learning lessons, not just giving them out. And there is a balance to the downward curves brought by the upward curves that serves the audience well. And it becomes clear quite soon that this is not true ‘issue’-based drama at all, but is a character piece, and one that gives equal space for each of its participants to dance around the central theme.
Alan Harris has produced a confident script that cuts through the potential quagmire of banality that is the world of corporate nuance with an expert hand. His characters speak with well-defined voices, offer up well-driven moral, as well as emotional, objections to their environments as they progress through the story. The central plot device (the discovery of a cure for radiation sickness) around which the characters dance, however, is a little more than initially meets the eye. A cure for radiation sickness is a cute metaphor for the striving each character experiences, as the corporate world pulsates and glows about them. The half-life of the oppression of their discovery affects each character differently, and some mutate more rapidly than others, and the question hangs unpleasantly over the dénouement that we, as the audience, have been nudged toward fighting all the way along: is it the cure that’s the most important thing?
The endpoint could be worth it; the pain and the suffering, the breaking through of the fever, is the eventual redemption. Lomax pushes through from his view of the world, a world always to be made more efficient, a world of people as imperfect objects waiting to be carved and moulded into machines. Grant finds that people matter also, just as the young Jasper finds that energy and youthful optimism are often not enough to win the day. Who is in a better position to confront the cruel world outside the anaesthetised sheen of the office/set at the end of the play: the character who has been humanised or the ones who have been blackened?
John McGrath’s direction holds this question firmly in its grasp – he makes stark contrast of the world of the office and the glum peripheries. The brown paper that often carpets large parts of the stage, etched with scientific scrawl, gradually overshadows the bright hazy underlighting that wraps itself around the ankles of the actors. It is a cute, and not too overpowering, metaphor for the muddiness of each character’s mind as they develop. Here McGrath lays his cards on the table, a decision which heightens the strengths of the script: this is a character play. It may be an ensemble piece, and it may be about huge galumphing issues such as global power, science versus business, the light shone by rational thought versus the darkness vomited out by the black knights of reductionism, but without the focus on the characters, the story is little more than a mildly-engaging episode of Panorama and the ensuing thirty minutes of Twitter outrage. The Opportunity of Efficiency is more thoughtful than that, without being ponderous, without being a lecture.
The performances are sturdy, and surprisingly assured being – as they are – the result of a rehearsal process that fed both ways between director and cast through a translator. The deficiencies seem almost certainly to have been down to the lack of fluidity inherent in such preparations. At times, the actors move awkwardly in the more physically-demanding moments, and fluidity is an issue that comes up time and time again at the translative break-down point. Miyamoto Yuko in particular stands out, as her narrative arc is the most subtle, the most filled with greys.
The Opportunity of Efficiency is a play that will forever be connected to this collaborative project. The argument at its centre is not only one that is universal, but it is one that is pertinent to Japan, and to Tokyo, and the fast moving development of its modern culture, as its traditions seem pushed more and more to the glum peripheries. But it is also a play that resonates with the international perception of Japan as a country that has finished its battle with the question of corporate versus human, and has come down on the colder side (the reality is nothing of the sort). And, on top of that, The Opportunity of Efficiency débuts the day after the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Holy Mother of cold-hearted bottom-line reductionist fly-swatting. National Theatre Wales have produced their most relevant and interesting show at a time when the world is watching.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis