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Red Demon

Hideki Noda, translated and adapted by Roger Pulvers, British adaptation by Hideki Noda and Matt Wilkinson
Old Vic
(2003)

The first appearance of a play by Hideki Noda in Europe is much heralded. It is unusual to see any contemporary Japanese play on a main London stage, so this production is doubly welcome. This production has even more to commend it as top Japanese director, Yukio Ninagawa, says of him, "Hideki Noda is the most talented playwright in contemporary Japan".

Noda is also a busy man. Not only did he write the play but he has also adapted and directed it for this production, and plays the part of the eponymous hero. In the latter role, he has great fun but lacks a little stage presence, certainly when persuading his audience that he is a terrifying demon.

Red Demon is a parable, which tells the tale of the impact of the arrival of a strange and alien being on an island that does not have any contact with the outside world. The islanders are self-sufficient and dream of a mystical land beyond the sea, of which they have heard from ancestors. This might be a far-off country or even heaven. They know that it is not possible to reach this land, as any trip across the sea will eventually lead to the end of the world, at which point they will simply fall off.

The style is heavily reminiscent of Complicité and this likeness is assisted by the appearance of one of their stalwarts, Marcello Magni, as Tombi, the moron. He is joined in the cast by several other exponents of physical theatre in United Kingdom.

The fear of outsiders is immediately apparent when Red Demon is washed up on the shore and found and adopted by That Woman, herself an outsider in a community that does not understand her yearnings. Looking like the Tango man from the television advert, in an anorak with the hood up, Noda does his best to be amenable to the natives. However, with his strange language; and attempts at mimicry in an effort to be understood, all he does is scare them.

Such is the insularity of this race that they cannot believe that a human being could come from across the sea, so a man who is speaking Japanese is to them a Red Demon who is likely to attack and kill them and eat their babies. Only the cynical That Woman, depicted as a character with great mental strength by Tamzin Griffin (a deviser and performer in Shockheaded Peter), together with her simple-minded brother, the ever-excellent Magni as Tombi, make any effort to break through.

They are assisted - perhaps hindered would be a better word - by Mizukane (Simon MacGregor in the mode of Peter Sellers as a trade unionist), who is willing to test his cowardice on Red Demon for a chance to bed That Woman.

The general hostility of the islanders, not only to their visitor but also his compatriots eventually forces them to take to the sea with a sad, tragic ending.

This is an often funny but exemplary demonstration of physical theatre, largely using a single prop, a multi-purpose wardrobe that becomes among other things, a cliff and a boat and a cave with beautiful murals. Vicki Mortimer and Miriam Buether's design also includes an array of hanging green and clear bottles, which add a touch of magic, assisted by Rick Fisher's lighting. Everything else is added by the bodies and the voices of the cast members who are particularly effective when playing a stormy sea.

Red Demon has already been seen in Japan, with an Englishman playing the outsider speaking English, and in Thailand with Noda in the role. It seems to have a great multicultural appeal and a significant contemporary importance as boat people like Red Demon and immigrants in general struggle to find new homes. It is also an enjoyable opportunity to find out what the best of today's Japanese theatre is really like.

Red Demon plays until 22nd February

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher