Jeremy Malies in south-east London
12 December 2023
A novitiate who only recently came under the spell, I am now (like all late converts to a cause) an uberfan. There is a moment in Matthew White’s production of Pacific Overtures when my ardour fired once more and the penny dropped slowly, as if through treacle, such that I grasped what Sondheim worship is all about.
Sario Solomon, Saori Oda, Masashi Fujimoto.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The scene I reference shows an elderly infirm man (Masashi Fujimoto) being wheeled on in a bath chair. He sings about how as a ten-year-old (his younger self is played by Joy Tan) he hid in a tree and watched the signing of an 1854 treaty by which the United States made undertakings not to renew its sabre-rattling expedition to Japan of the previous year. The number is a sustained burst of minimalist incantation, a simple dissonant idea that carries us along playfully before exploding into harmony.
The title of this musical comes from an entry in the 1853 diary of Commander Matthew C. Perry who, at the bidding of US president Millard Fillmore, led some gunboat diplomacy designed to end Japan’s 200-year-old stance of isolation from the rest of the world. There is multiple play on words in the title. The overtures are hardly pacific, and Perry’s expedition consisted of no less than four steam-powered warships which were fully armed even though the pretext was diplomacy.
Sondheim and collaborator John Weidman (book), with additional material by Hugh Wheeler, set out in 1976 to write their musical from a Japanese perspective. And the manifest integrity of their approach absolves them from charges of cultural appropriation. Indeed, this production (in association with the Osaka-based Umeda Arts Theater) was performed in Tokyo earlier in 2023. The version was modified to be in Japanese with the exception of dialogue between Americans or Europeans. Now, Japanese is the exception, but it is used in some scenes showing the court of the shogun.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The whole endeavour of this staging at the Menier Chocolate Factory springboards from White’s ingenious framing device which makes the piece work despite a lack of any expansive action in a small space configured as traverse. He and designer Paul Farnsworth develop the plot as though it were an art installation in a museum. The first actors we see are museum-goers dressed like us, and we are asked to imagine ourselves among their number. The visitors look at paintings on the imaginary walls in front of us. Farnsworth includes traditional ink-wash landscapes of mountain scenes on screens and steel lattice work. His approach is uncomplicated and effective, with the ruse of an enormous sheet to represent the prow of a ship proving effective. The piece quickly immerses us aurally, be it the sound of rice spilling from sacks or “the languorous whispering of a geisha”. Music and percussive effects come from an orchestra loft with Paul Bogaev (from keyboard) leading a band of eight.
Pulling the strings (not literally though props by Jamie Owens include a puppet from the Kabuki tradition) is Jon Chew as the Reciter. I loved the gag that he is in charge of the installation via a remote control console which at one point is wrested from him by Saori Oda as the shogun. (There are several gender changes.) Last seen in The Good Person of Szechwan, Chew emphasizes in his distancing from the action what I think is White’s Brechtian take, with stagehands entering repeatedly to move the set while the house lights are up. Chew almost sits on the rhythms of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations and Ashley Nottingham’s choreography as he propels the narrative. I intuited that he is conjuring the whole thing up in his mind’s eye.
Lighting design by Paul Pyant ranges from the fire that spits from the funnels of the warships to dawn in beach scenes involving coppery tones. Occasionally his spotlights dance off the bronze objects in abstract geometrical shapes which reinforce the idea that the museum we are in has exhibits of all kinds. Characters from the court of the shogun enter from a circular door at one end which opens in horizontal halves.
Joaquin Pedro Valdes excels as the historical character Nakahama Manjirō. A young fisherman who got into trouble and was rescued by an American whaler, he was educated in Massachusetts. Manjirō returns in a Western naval tunic speaking perfect English and has an important intermediary role to play. Valdes works closely with Takuro Ohno whose character is co-opted by court officials to be a statesman-cum-policeman who must protect the country’s interests. There is observant multi-faceted acting (in contrast with the deliberate broad brush elsewhere) as Ohno is shown at home brooding over his new responsibilities.
Luoran Ding (facing).
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
As the action moves to the late nineteenth century and just as we would welcome a change of gear, Sondheim and Weidman treat us to a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche patter song. (It’s an obvious choice in light of The Mikado I suppose.) “Please, hello I come with letters from her Majesty Victoria, who learning how you’re trading now sang Hallelujah Gloria, and sent me to convey to you her positive euphoria, as well as little gifts from Britain’s various emporia.” Syllable-perfect but in no way flamboyant.
The 105 minutes with no interval hurtle forward at the close with Leo Flint’s video projection showing us a Japanization process as US and European culture assimilates elements of Japanese fashion, tradition and modes of expression though this steers clear of weightier political or economic elements. I shouldn’t ventriloquize for Sondheim in terms of the current political climate and Japan’s future but can hardly fail to note current tension between Japan and Russia over territories such as the Kuril Islands. I don’t know if Vladimir Putin ever quotes Savoy operas, but I left pondering Putin’s ambitions as a latter-day czar and found myself humming lines from the cod W.S. Gilbert we have enjoyed here: “We don’t foresee that you will be the least bit argumentative, / So please ignore the man-of-war we brought as a preventative.”