Urashima Taro

Aya Nakamura and Paul Piris
Rouge28 Theatre
Pleasance Theatre
(2011)

Urashima Taro production photo

This is a version of an ancient Japanese story about a poor fisherman who helps a turtle and then, apparently in thanks, is invited to visit the undersea palace of the Dragon King where he meets the turtle again in the form of a beautiful princess.

This version makes her a predatory female. We see her first, before we meet the fisherman, selecting a new man from a collection of images, then sending her servant to find Urashima Taro and issue the invitation. Once below the sea, she seduces him and then offers the choice of returning to his village or staying with her for ever.

I'm not sure what happens then, the storytelling here is confusing - and not helped by parts of the presentation being played too low down to be properly seen by many in the audience at this venue. It seemed to me that she tired of him as a lover and had him first stabbed then strangled. However, still alive, he went back to his village only to find himself in the middle of busy modern Shinjuku along with Godzilla. In most other versions of the old legend he is given a box which he is told not to open - but he does and then discovers he has become an old man - the box had kept his old age prisoner.

In fact, the interest in this piece is less in the story than in the methods used for telling it and the skill of their execution. It begins with shadow theatre of a woman dressing who then appears as the live actress with her puppet servant to set the manhunt in motion and the cardboard figures from which she made her choice are used in a toy theatre with scenes based on Japanese woodblock prints to tell the fisherman's encounter with the turtle, scenes which are also projected as a larger image.

In fact, though I can't be sure, the toy theatre image itself may be a television screen, although the performer appears to lower the characters down onto the stage. The crudity of these figures suspended on strings bring jigged up and down contrasted uncomfortably with the sophistication of their settings and of most of the performance but if is a very deliberate effect on the part of the director and video designer Paul Piris, perhaps intended to emphasise the fisherman's peasant simplicity in contrast to the world of the Dragon Palace.

The princess is played by Aya Nakamura, who also operates the puppets she appears with, the servant a little shorter than her, the young man slightly taller. She gains her effects mainly by different inclinations of the puppet's head and her own interaction with it, laying her head for instance on the young man's shoulder, and uses them most effectively in her shadow work too.

The work ends with the young man puppet stripped of its garment so that it is revealed as just a head and hands at the end of skeletal arms but she can still make it expressive.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton