The Twin Stars
Unicorn Theatre (Weston Auditorium)
The Twin Stars was the very first story written by the early twentieth century Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa, famous for his writing for children. It is here told as play within a play that presents us with a picture of the writer's life that parallels the message of the tale.
Born in 1896, Miyazawa trained in agriculture and forestry but when his younger sister was taken ill he returned to home to help look after her and work in his father's pawnshop where, concerned about the poorer people from whom his family make money, he displeases his father by offering them too much for their possessions. It is there we find him, being visited by his sister's ghost, not as the young women who died but as the little girl who was always asking him to tell her stories.
She demands a story she liked that he never finished about twin stars who play their flutes all night and during the day play across the sky, getting involved in trying to help two constellations that get caught up with two battling constellations and have to stop them and repair the universe. On her insistence Kenji tells it once more and now gives it an ending, an ending which suggests that we have a greater duty to do good and what is right for us than to carry out filial responsibilities.
Dai Tabuchi makes the poet a gentle and likeable young man, escaping into his imagined worlds while trapped in his real surroundings. I'm sure he won over his young audience (I saw it with a party of 7-10 year olds). His sister's ghost is a puppet figure - a dress and a pair of shoes that sometimes fly far away from it - cleverly operated by three performers and voiced by Sachi Kimura who also plays a little girl who comes to gaze through the shop window at the doll her mother had to pawn. It is not always easy to understand the odd stresses of her English but she and Noriko Aida as her mother are very natural and touching, Michael Sheldon is very clear spoken but somewhat actory as Kenji's father. What is probably intended to make him seem strict and traditional in his attitudes tends rather make him unreal as a character, while Sadao Ueda's drunken customer offers a piece of 'rough theatre' acting. Director Tony Graham has not managed to blend these styles as successfully as he has managed his staging in the delightful set and very genuine looking costumes by Hirotsuu Yabuta and Yukiko Tsukamoto.
The audience were much more responsive to scenic and physical aspects of the show such as the figures of the constellations and, with some passages in Japanese and others spoken in very Japanese inflected English, I wondered whether how easily they followed more than the main story. It is my belief that to be understood in a play written in English but set elsewhere, if the characters are all supposed to have the same language they should speak clear English, perhaps with an appropriate accent but, unless the point is that a character is incomprehensible, not with un-English cadences.
The exception perhaps proves the rule. Another recent Japanese play (The Face of Jizo) at the Arcola, of which I had previously seen a draft of the script and though it awkwardly translated, seemed to work when played by Japanese performers with rather fractured English that matched the odd sentence structures.
Kenny's script, however, is written as naturally spoken English and stressing syllables oddly and putting emphasis differently from an English speaker fuddles understanding, especially when taken as fast as it often was here. In addition a rather lyrical opening passage (perhaps a translation of one of Miyazawa's poems?) was negated by being split between the company and delivered as though the separate phrases had little relation to each other.
I applaud the introduction of other cultures to young audiences and if they are used to listening hard, this is a pleasant if not very exciting play but its message is aimed perhaps at their elders.
Playing until 6th April 2008 mornings and afternoons.
Check times on their website www.unicorntheatre.com
Reviewer: Howard Loxton