As previously proven a couple of years ago with its brilliant, bruising production of Colleen Murphy’s Pig Girl, the Finborough isn’t a theatre that believes in easing us into the New Year with something cosy. And those already overdosed on festive theatrical fun may be relieved to discover that the theatre is kicking off 2018 with a similarly intense and uncompromising piece: Into the Numbers, by Obie award-winning playwright Christopher Chen, which is here receiving its European premiere.
Georgie Staight’s production of Chen’s play marks two significant anniversaries. For starters, it’s the first production to be staged at the Finborough in the 150th year of the building. More soberingly, the production also commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Nanking massacre, the genocide perpetrated against Chinese soldiers and civilians by Japanese troops after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in December 1937. Encouraged and enabled by the Japanese military leadership, the genocide resulted in over 300,000 deaths, as well as thousands of incidents of torture and sexual assault.
The focus of Chen’s play is not precisely the genocide itself, however, but rather its echoes and reverberations many years later. The play’s protagonist is Iris Chang, the Chinese-American historian whose 1997 book about the massacre, The Rape of Nanking, became an international bestseller. And the drama posits a link between Chang’s work on the book (and, more particularly, the media circus that resulted from its success and controversy) and the author’s decision to take her own life, at the age of 36, in 2004.
The play initially takes the form of a lecture/interview/Q&A session. Brisk, professional and quietly impassioned, Elizabeth Chan, as Chang, takes to a lectern to deliver her talk on what happened in Nanking, and her assessment of it moral and historical implications. But the drama’s main aim is to present a psychological portrait of its protagonist, one that reveals the toll that researching genocide, and regurgitating its horrors at public events, may take upon an individual. (As the title suggests, numbers are a motif, with Chang obsessively questioned about how Nanking compares to other atrocities in terms of the amount of people killed.)
While Chang tells her interviewer that she’s able to “compartmentalise” her research and her life, the play suggests that this may not have been the case, and does so by distinctive theatrical means that enact, rather than merely evoking, a disturbing blurring of boundaries. A victim’s relative (Jennifer Lim), expressing her gratitude for Chan’s book at a Q&A, morphs into a victim herself. The Japanese Deputy Ambassador (Mark Ota), justifying his country’s past acts with chillingly genial complacency, returns to confront Chang as a soldier at Nanking, suggesting that readers “enjoy” the horrors described in her book. An interviewer becomes Chang’s husband and then a doctor (Timothy Knightley, tripling up). These figures are, we come to understand, projections of Chang’s fears and anxieties, revealing the ways in which her work on genocide has disturbed her beliefs about the nature of evil and alerted her to the limitations of rational explanation.
Plays about a protagonist’s downward spiral have an inevitable trajectory, and Chen’s writing doesn’t quite sustain the drama’s impact in some of the later confrontations. The viewer may also feel a little bit of discomfort about the play’s use of Chang’s story, particularly as the evening progresses. Still, anchored by Chan’s committed, moving performance, Staight’s simply staged production negotiates the play’s surreal shifts between time, space and consciousness with fluidity and assurance. The evening benefits considerably from an atmospheric sound design by Benjamin Winter, a spare set by Isabella Van Braeckel, and Matt Cater’s lighting, with nine strips of lights that dim and illuminate to the pulse of the drama. If the play sometimes seems more like a sketch than a deep exploration of its themes, it remains thought-provoking, and, in Staight’s sharp production, achieves moments of hallucinatory power.