The wonderful thing about Ben Yeoh's play is that while most translations conceal the difficult and pragmatic process of re-structuring and re-invention are necessary to any translation, Nakamitsu places that precarious balance between two cultures centre stage.
The primary reason for this is the very nature of the drama that the playwright has chosen to translate. As Ben has highlighted himself, the Japanese Noh tradition from which the play is drawn is grammatically, culturally and historically so distinct that any attempt to directly replicate it would be destined to failure from the start:
"A Noh actor has 20 or 30 years of training, like a ballet dancer, in a specific technique," says Yeoh, who has been working closely with director Jonathan Munby. "To imitate that with a bunch of western actors would be wrong, in the same way that you can't do Greek tragedy today the way the Greeks did it unless you are expert in maskwork and have an amphitheatre at your disposal. To try to copy what is a living tradition in Japan would be a mistake. We want to hint towards the original."What Ben has ended up with is a beautiful series of echoes, inflections of our own experience delicately blended with the play's Japanese origins. Nowhere is this more effective than at the beginning of the play, as a scene of seedy familiarity begins to be played out in a strip club, men dressed as schoolboys and army officers gyrating on the shiny, white traverse stage. But when this scene is interrupted by a sharp suited white man and his hooded gun-wielding assailant, the language streaming from their western mouths is startlingly alien. This effect is then brilliantly reversed when the almost stereotypical Japanese sounds and costumes of the rest of the play are accompanied by English voices that now, after the opening, seem so comforting and familiar.
Yeoh and his directors continue to toy between their contradictory frames of references, the stylised movements of the actors at once suggesting the Noh origins of the play and the contemporary nightclub strip-teases of the play's beginning. This translation is unashamedly a new work, as informed by London as it is by Japan and by today as much as it is by the long heritage of Noh drama.
As a consequence of this, and also of the sweaty immediacy of the staging in the tiny Gate Theatre, the story does not feel like a cultural artifact or a museum piece. It's simply narrative of honour, subjection and tragedy have real emotional clout. Some effective pieces of stagecraft, particularly involving a bloody book, dripping red spots onto the white stage, and the incredible music further enhance a thoroughly affecting story.
Neither amalgamated into our own culture and experience or kept as an exotic, distant curiosity, Nakamitsu is a piece of theatre that shares its nature with its most tantalising and intriguing musical accompaniment, an instrument called the Hang, created only in 2000, that incorporates parts of the steel drum and various other percussion instruments and is only made in a small area of Switzerland. Both are fascinating, hybrid creations, that look and feel startling new and yet ancient and familiar. Both are also worth travelling a very long way for.