The Diver

Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan
Soho Theatre

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One imagines that this novel piece would probably work much better in Japan than elsewhere. It is based heavily on The Tale of Genji, an Eleventh Century book that is reputed to be the first ever novel.

In its homeland, this is the equivalent of a much-loved fairy tale or even religious work, with its mysticism and characters known to all from school days. The writers then mix it with a Noh classic, Ama, and a steamy film noir plot.

The ingenious and iconoclastic Hideki Noda has taken the novel and worked tales around it, in collaboration with playwright Colin Teevan. Perhaps uniquely, the Japanese playwright stars.

He plays a psychiatrist drafted in to decide whether a patently mad Woman should stand trial for murder by arson. Kathryn Hunter impresses, playing a lady who seems detached from reality, constantly reinventing herself as strange quasi-historical characters.

Her case is debated earnestly by a hard-nosed policeman (Glyn Pritchard) and the judge who must decide whether she is to face the death penalty. The story seems like a simple police procedural but with the added element of non-naturalistic staging, the psychiatrist's rooms burnt out like the house that the murderer fire-bombed, and scenes jumping around in time and taking place underwater or in masks.

Gradually more layers are revealed to show that the Woman's story mirrors that of Genji's mistress, while her shrink takes over as the Emperor's son's wife, Noda, peaking to much merriment from a young, opening night audience. At the same time, the Judge played by Harry Gostelow is struggling to keep an affair secret, under great pressure from his lover, mirroring the millennium-old tale.

Thus Noda, who in addition to writing and acting directs, operates on three separate levels to illuminate a Noh classic and the ancient novel for a modern audience. He is helped by stylish designs and traditionally-influenced music, thus creating some attractive scenes to augment the story.

The Diver is a novelty that brings a different culture into focus without entirely persuading one of its superiority to our own. However, for fans of Genji or Noh, it is a must-see.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher