27 January 2018

Into The Numbers at Finborough Theatre was a powerful and intense drama

Into The Numbers was one of those plays that I really wanted to see but struggled to find a slot to do so. In the end I chose to go for a Saturday matinee when I already had theatre booked for the evening. It was also the last day of its run.

The 3pm start time was later than I am used too but worked well as it allowed me to have lunch at my usual time (1pm precisely) before heading into West Brompton.

The entire run of Into The Numbers had sold out and the room was already pretty full when I went upstairs through the myriad of complex doors. The stage was set more or less as a square with seating on two sides and I grabbed a place in the front row on the narrow side. On the stage was a lectern and two bench like seats. Above it hung some lamps.

This was January 27, my birthday and also Holocaust Memorial Day. The later was more relevant than the first as Into The Numbers started with The Nanking Massacre of 1937 in which soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army murdered between 40,0000 and 300,000 Chinese civilians in just six weeks. In the play, the events were described in a book called The Rape of Nanjing and the story was about its author Iris Chang. Both the book and the author are real (so Wikipedia informs me) but I have no idea how true the story was, not that it really mattered.

We followed Iris on a book tour in which she summarised her book, was interviewed, answered audience questions and discussed the event with a Japanese official (acting unofficially). Away from the stage she talked to her husband. A lot came from all of these threads in a short time.

I had not heard of the Nanking Massacre nor, to my shame, several of the other similar events. Holocaust Memorial Day is meant to cover some of those, i.e. the ones after 1945, but they tend to get overlooked and Nanking was too early to qualify. If nothing else Into The Numbers was a harsh reminder of just how much harm man has done to man and how little attention we often pay to this.

On the lecture circuit the role of modern Japan was a useful examination of countries' response to their pasts. In the UK we have faced similar questions over the general issue of slavery and also specific incidents across the Empire like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the  Mau Mau Uprising. Here Japan's simple arguments were that modern Japan was not the same thing as the pre-war Japan and so it made no sense for old Japan to be judged by the standards of modern Japan or for new Japan to apologise for something that old Japan had done. Both arguments have merit whether you agree with them or not.

Finally, in Iris' personal life we saw how the messenger can become the victim from being immersed in the tragedy and in having to face criticism of her portrayal of it.

It was a powerful and intense drama.

Adding to the intensity was the remarkable production. Elizabeth Chan was powerful as Iris Chang and Timothy Knightley was the perfect foil playing most of the other main roles. The lighting that was prominent at the start remained important in setting the mood.

It was a difficult hour and a half, as it should have been with such a difficult subject, but it was an important subject too and the exemplary theatre craft helped the bitter pill to be swallowed.

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