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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Red Demon
by Lizzie Loveridge

When the four of us set sail, we were filled with an overwhelming joy and excitement. We finally understood how the Von Trapp family must have felt when they sang Eidelweiss fleeing from the Nazis over the Alps.
-- Tombi
Red Demon
Simon Gregor as Mizukane, Marcello Magni as Tombi, Tamzin Griffin as That Woman and Hideki Noda as Red Demon (Photo: Keith Pattison)
Legend has it that during the Napoleonic Wars, in the early 1800s, the citizens of the Hartlepool on the north east coast of England cornered a French spy. Rising to their patriotic duty they seized the rascal, summarily tried him and then hung him. This would be nothing of note except that the alleged French spy was a shipwrecked ape. That's right, a monkey. You see in the days before mass media, the natives of Cumbria did not know what the French looked like, but having been told that they were the enemy, believed they were short and excessively hairy. Such is the nature of xenophobia.

In a first for England, Japan's celebrated playwright Hideki Noda brings his own play Red Demon to the Young Vic. Tickets for Noda's plays sell out immediately in Japan, such is his celebrity status. Yukio Ninagawa said of Noda, "He is not one of the best but absolutely the most talented and provocative playwright of contemporary Japan."

Red Demon is a simple story told with great physical theatre of how a small community treats an alien, not an alien from outer space but human being from another land. It is an appropriate time for us to consider the issues revealed in this play as the debate rages over the number of asylum seekers allowed into Britain. Noda, himself plays the Red Demon, who is neither demonic nor red but such is the perceptual prejudice of the villagers towards the incomer who does not speak their language. A woman (Tamzin Griffin), who is introduced to us as my little sister by a simpleton, Tombi (Marcello Magni), is referred to in the text as That Woman, her name expressing how the community feels about her. That Woman befriends the man who has been washed up on the shore. A local lothario, Mizukane (Simon Gregor) after displaying the worst of prejudice gets involved with the demon but only to exploit him as an exhibit in a sideshow. In the course of the play the demon is accused of kidnapping babies, eating people, getting secret messages in bottles to plan an invasion and having intimate relations with That Woman. After a trial, the four main characters are cast out to sea with tragic consequences.

I loved the characterisation of the main parts. The swaggering, hip swivelling Simon Gregor as Mizukane, who lets his cock do his thinking, is a simply wonderful performance. Red Demon himself, a diminutive figure in a grey hooded jacket, is child like and sweetly funny as he chatters away in a language incomprehensible to me. (I do wonder how the play seems to Japanese and English speakers.) Marcello Magni as Tombi has a compelling honesty, his limited brain power embracing a charming naiveté. Tamzin Griffin is sincere and as good a friend as any stranger could hope to meet, unafraid to be different from her community.

The sheer physicality of the performance is magical, like a beautifully illustrated fairy tale. Every opportunity is used to bring in mime. The sole prop is a wardrobe. Turned on its back, the doors rise and fall and it becomes a boat on the sea. Up ended, it is a cave or a prison. Numerous green and clear plastic bottles are suspended above the stage in a perfect circle. The whole cast move forward and back together like the incoming tide on the beach. In one scene they all cradle imaginary babies whose crying would start mothers lactating. Everyone except the red demon is dressed in layered shades of red, vermilion, scarlet, crimson, and magenta. The sounds of the sea add atmosphere.

I was entranced for the first hour, amused and entertained but then it lost something. Maybe the story lacked a complexity. It is essentially a straightforward tale about prejudice, rumour and the nature of xenophobia but with no dramatic revelation or unexpected conclusion. I am forced to wonder what might have been lost in the translation from Japanese to English. I wondered whether it was a cultural gap, whether my expectations were of a depth of plot rather than a beautiful, stylised interpretation of a simple theme? Much of the language is adult, the references sexual or brutal, making it unsuitable for children. Red Demon appeals to the inner child, and in some ways, it is a very appealing piece of physical drama.

Red Demon
Written and directed by Hideki Noda
Translation by Roger Pulvers
British Adaptation by Hidelki Noda and Matt Wilkinson

With: Simon Gregor, Tamzin Griffin, Marcello Magni, Samantha McDonald, Clive Mendus, Hideki Noda, Ofo Uhiara, Matt Wilkinson
Co-Designers: Miriam Buether and Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher
Sound: Sarah Weltman
Music: Yukio Takatsu
Running time: One hour 45 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7928 6363
Booking to 22nd February 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 3rd February 2003 Performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Tube Station: Waterloo)
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