Review: New Plays: Japan, Royal Court Theatre

Review: New Plays: Japan, Royal Court Theatre

Review: New Plays: Japan, Royal Court Theatre

A fascinating exploration of modern Japenese theatrical traditions.


Royal Court Theatre and New National Theatre Tokyo co-produced three brand-new plays as a part of a writers’ group run by both institutions. Presented as staged readings with absolutely minimal scenography and costumes – coincidentally, all writers and translators are women – the results are mixed but absolutely fascinating – and to confront such different theatrical traditions is no small feat.  

Not Yet Midnight (真夜中とよぶにはまだはやい) 

by Tomoko Kotaka, translated by Sayuri Suzuki 

It is really rather hard to tell what Not Yet Midnight is really about. There’s a power cut, apparently at night, and three different interactions thus ensue, prompted by darkness. A couple begins speaking honestly with one another. Three office workers reveal their secrets to one another. A sales assistant tries to get rid of her last customer. It’s a little bit confusing as to where the play is heading and it seems that some things were lost in translation moreso than in other plays. The extensive use of monosyllables and elliptical dialogue – characteristic for East Asian languages – is quite distracting in English and makes it harder to make sense of what’s happening on stage. That said, there’s plenty of fabulous concepts throughout – a frame with a character pondering whether they are dead yet – good humour and relatable characters. It needs more polish, and more readings perhaps, but Tomoko Kotaka is undoubtedly a brilliant talent.  

28 hours 01 minute  (28時01分)  

by Shoko Matsumura, translated by Sayuri Suzuki 

By far my favourite of all three, 28 hours 01 minute is weird, absurd, bizarre, quirky, funny, tragic, shocking, unexpected, outrageous and spectacular. Barely longer than an hour, it explores the joys and fears of motherhood in Japanese society where strict gender roles are still the norm and working mothers – an oxymoron. Pregnant Aoji wakes up in the night, attempting to get to the loo, yet is interrupted by her weird neighbour, Uso. Each of their meetings is stranger than the previous, and each unravels another layer of Aoji’s views of pregnancy, family and society as a whole. It’s all about the female gaze – but is it, really? 

Onigoro Valley (その先、鬼五郎渓谷につき、)   

by Saori Chiba, translated by Susan Momoko Hingley 

This Kwaidan-esque horror story needs a little bit more stage magic to truly shine but the concept is both moving and effective. Two decontamination workers accidentally enter a world that is very much not their own. Turns out one of them has to live, to keep telling the story of Fukushima… The play chiefly explores the theme of displacement and the subsequent loss of identity – and truly, with proper staging, it has the potential to be a massive commercial hit.  

Royal Court Theatre, 26-28 Jan