Jung Sun den Hollander
Dutch Courage Productions
Lion & Unicorn Theatre

Jung Sun den Hollander as Kusumoto Taki Credit: Phil Smith
Jung Sun den Hollander as Kusumoto Taki Credit: Phil Smith

In this solo performance, writer/actor Jung Sun den Hollander plays Japanese Kusumoto Taki who, shortly before her death in Nagasaki in 1865, shares her memories with her granddaughter.

She speaks especially of the years in the 1820s when she lived with the German physician and botanist Philip von Siebold and bore their daughter O-Ine, before the events that led to their separation.

What we asked for, what we hoped
Nothing more than elusive smoke.

That is how Taki-san speaks of that happy time in the voice-over prologue that introduces her touching story.

They met when von Siebold was sent to be the doctor on the island of Dejima, across from of Nagasaki and separated from the mainland by a man-made canal. It was the place where Dutch traders were allowed a trading post from 1641 to 1853, the only permitted foreign trade during this isolationist period.

After von Siebold cured an influential local official, he was given permission to treat patients in the local area and also trained Japanese students in Western medicine.

Young Taki was ill and the gaijin doctor was called to attend her: and they fell in love. “He came into my life and never left! “ she says, and she still means it although, she continues, “he left anyway.”

Now, looking back, she speaks of those times more than thirty years earlier, sometimes switching back to be the little girl who was taught proper behaviour and a woman’s role in Japanese society, or re-enacting a particularly dramatic moment in her story, the transitions aided by Melodie Ng's music and sound score and Max Wolf’s lighting.

She tells of the cruel humiliation she suffered in order to be allowed to visit the island, how she secretly taught her lover Japanese (itself law-breaking), of daughter Ine who looked so like father Philip and the pride she took in Ine, who studied medicine and became the first Japanese woman to become a physician.

Von Siebold made a great study of what he saw in Japan and assembled a collection of plant and animal material and of artefacts, some given him by patients, some gathered personally, especially on a journey he made to the Shogun in Edo (Tokyo).

He was also given maps and that led to their personal tragedy for some disagreement that alienated a Japanese who knew he had them told the authorities and he was suspected of being a Russian spy and a traitor. This led to brutal interrogations, graphically presented, for Taki, their friends and many others leading to savage punishments and Philip’s expulsion, leaving Taki and Ine behind.

That is not the last of Taki’s sad story for letters came to her and many years later a changed Philip came back, though circumstances were different for both of them.

For over an hour, Jung Sun den Hollander holds the attention in a production of elegant simplicity under Katie Merritt’s direction. Reiko Tanaka’s setting may not have actual tatami mats but a shoji screen and a simple platform suggest a traditional Japanese home with its veranda. A water stoup with a traditional water scoop hint at a Japanese garden and blue hydrangeas are a reminder of the hydrangea variety von Siebold named after Taki.

Projections of typical Japanese imagery are used at the opening to suggest period and represent Siebold’s interests. Only an already informed audience would realise that they are scenes of Nagasaki and Dejima, though they would surely realise that those at the end show Siebold with an actual photograph of him with his European son.

They are also cleverly called into use when Taki speaks of her Japanese lessons. Simple shadow puppetry makes a brief contribution when Taki describes Philip’s departure.

Dôkei, as Taki explains in those language lessons, is a literary word not used in conversation that expressed the feeling she felt for her Philip, a longing—and one that she still feels despite everything that has happened to her.

This play is the first production of new company Dutch Courage Productions. It deserves a much longer life than these few première Kentish Town performances but catch it there if you can. I look forward to what they produce next.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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