The Nanking Massacre in 1937, perpetrated by the Japanese on the Chinese, is the backdrop to Into The Numbers, and its chronicler, Iris Chang in her book The Rape of Nanking, with her descent into suicide, is its subject. I think that is playwright Christopher Chen’s intention though my overriding impression is that he can’t make up his mind whether his play is about Iris Chang or about the massacre. The result is an uneven narrative that lurches about without ever defining its own raison d’être.
To an extent the problem starts with the decision to set the play in a lecture hall with Iris delivering to the audience the shocking details of the massacre. We keep returning to the lecture and its repeated historical details which puts heavy restrictions on the drama of the piece with the action becoming as tedious as it is static. It is unusual, I would suggest, for such a detailed lecture, in a large venue, to be delivered entirely without visual aids – projections, videos, computer graphics and the like. And it is here that Chen and director Georgie Staight miss a trick: a projected rolling docu-drama backdrop would provide all the intricate historical detail that Chen wants to get across whilst the real story, the human story, unfolds before it so that we have a clear distinction between factual reality and the developing emotional turmoil of a clearly disturbed psyche. Elizabeth Chan as Iris starts hesitantly and is clearly not helped by being stuck behind a podium for the opening sequences. She is much more effective in the final scenes, where her demons take over and she seems to have a much clearer idea of what she is doing and saying. The interludes with her husband Brett (Timothy Knightley) are quite embarrassing with neither seemingly knowing how the relationship should be played. Knightley also plays the Interviewer and the Doctor (psychotherapist) and although he does his best to individualise each role his cause is not helped by all three characters suffering from the same fashion faux-pas – cheap dark blue suit with brown shoes. Something for designer Isabella Van Braeckel to have a look at though it might help – the audience and Knightley – if the husband discarded his jacket and the Doctor put on a cravat, say which could be easily done.
Jennifer Lim is quietly effective as a victim though her delivery is rather staccato and Amy Molloy is extremely powerful as Minnie Vautrin, the Angel of Nanking, who helps and protects girls as the massacre rages. Molloy gives real credence and humanity to the factual maelstrom we have been barraged with at last giving us the chance to marry the historical with Iris’s descent into despair. It is with the entrance of Mark Ota as the Deputy Japanese Ambassador that the show moves up several notches and lets some dramatic oxygen in. Ota is excellent – bright, confident with a hint of cynical bemusement – and we feel that at last the narrative is giving us something to get our teeth into. Ota is also funny and – serious subject that it is – Staight would do well to let him off the leash a little more so that we have an effective counterpoint to the misery and disgust of the grisly subject matter. Ota returns as a Japanese soldier, representative of a nation and as unapologetic as his modern personification in the Deputy Ambassador. The play comes alive when Molloy and Ota are on stage: maybe writer Chen could have a look at the long, often turgid preamble to see if some judicious pruning might help the cause: advertised as 80 minutes but with an actual running time of over 95 without interval it is too long.
I was very taken with Matt Cater’s lighting design – nine multi-bulb batons suspended vertically above the playing area which individually, and randomly, fade in and out: but, nice as they are, they have absolutely no relevance to the show. And that, I believe, is the crucial dichotomy here: the play is called Into The Numbers and we get masses of numbers thrown at us unabated – so that they become irrelevant. We have multiple historical facts about the massacre, repeated almost ad nauseam – until they also become irrelevant: hearing that babies are bayoneted is truly shocking – but only the first time, not the second and third. And Iris’s angst, though real, diminishes the more she pores over the same old ground.
And when the Doctor, on Iris’s command, starts counting down, minute by minute, from 4am, as Iris’s psychosis pushes her into her suicidal abyss, mentally I’m screaming: please, please don’t get to 4.48.
Review by Peter Yates
“Words… they have their limits. They aren’t the same as the things they represent.”
Commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Nanking massacre, as well as the first production at the Finborough Theatre building in its 150th anniversary year, the European premiere of Into the Numbers by multi-award-winning American playwright Christopher Chen.
In December 1937, in Nanking, then capital of China, occurred one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century – the rape, torture and murder of 300,000 Chinese civilians and the systematic mass execution of soldiers by the Japanese army.
In 2004, Iris Chang, famed author of The Rape of Nanking, a chronicle of the massacre that brought it back into public consciousness, committed suicide at the age of 36. What begins as a standard lecture and interview with the celebrated author, soon descends into a surreal nightmare. As ghosts from her research appear, she tries desperately to find order in the midst of mental chaos.
Into the Numbers by the Obie Award and Dramatist Guild’s Lanford Wilson Award winning playwright Christopher Chen, is a thrillingly innovative theatrical exploration of the philosophical and psychological implications of researching genocide, as well as the toll media saturation plays in the process.
Directed by Georgie Staight
Set and Costume Design by Isabella Van Braeckel
Lighting by Matt Cater
Sound and Composition by Benjamin Winter
Presented by Arsalan Sattari Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Cast: ELIZABETH CHAN, TIMOTHY KNIGHTLEY, JENNIFER LIM, AMY MOLLOY, MARK OTA.
Into the Numbers
By christopher Chen
Tuesday, 2 January – Saturday, 27 January 2018