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Madness and Massacres – Into the Numbers (Theatre Review)

5 STARS

IT IS 80 years since the Nanking Massacre.

A killing frenzy over six weeks that resulted in more than 300,000 Chinese civilians being murdered and some 80,000 young girls and women raped.

This barbarous episode in Japan’s history was the focus of bestseller The Rape of Nanking in 1997: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War Two. It also spawned a documentary in 2007 entitled Nanking, by Ted Leonsis.

The dreadful events of 1937 have now been used as the backdrop to a new play, Into The Numbers, showing at the Finborough Theatre – one of London’s most progressive and ambitious fringe theatres, enjoying its 150th anniversary year.

Written by Christopher Chen, the play looks at the massacre through the eyes and mind of Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking. Although Chang – an American – received widespread acclaim for her book, it took its personal toll, culminating in her suicide in late 2004.

The play charts the deterioration in Chang’s mental health following the publication of her book – while constantly reminding the viewer of the horrors that the Japanese inflicted on the Chinese. A scale – and intensity – of brutality only matched by the Holocaust.

Hence the play’s title – and its relentless use of numbers to emphasise the scale of the massacre. One thousand two hundred tons of blood spilt in the killing frenzy, dead bodies that if stacked on top of one another would have been as high as a 74 story building. More deaths than most massacres in the history of the world – the Crusades, Yangzhou (the Tsang dynasty) and the Kurds.

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As if that were not enough to freeze you to your seat, we get a full description of the various despicable things the Japanese soldiers did to the inhabitants of Nanking – babies boiled in vats of water, men hung by their genitals, mass beheadings and death by ice and fire. It makes for tough listening.

Elizabeth Chan is mesmeric as Chang – an individual who wilts before our eyes as she confronts the demons of Nanking. She stares at the floor listening to Ray Charles as her husband Brett (Timothy Knightley) asks why she has been sitting alone for three hours. She sheds tears and physically diminishes before our eyes.

She stares in disbelief as the deputy ambassador of Japan (Mark Ota) refuses in an interview (badly) arranged by an American interviewer (Knightley, take two) to apologise for the massacre. ‘The Japan of today is not the Japan of yesterday,’ he says. ‘You are responsible for the past,’ she retorts. His evasiveness stuns her into silence. ‘I am speechless,’ she says.

As her mental state deteriorates, she implores her doctor (Knightley, take three) to reduce her drug dosage because she has the ‘instinct to become more positive’.

She is visited by the ghosts of Nanking – a victim, a Japanese soldier and most movingly Minnie Vautrin, a Christian missionary who upon her return from Nanking gassed herself. Vautrin is beautifully played by Amy Molloy.

Initially silent, Vautrin reveals her confrontation with the devil in Nanking – ‘he ate God alive’, she says. All plausible given the rape, pillage and murder that circled her every move.

Into The Numbers is a painful account of a dreadful episode in the world’s history that will leave you completely drained and shell shocked. But given the fact that atrocities –not on Nanking’s scale – continue to scar mankind, its relevance is overwhelming.

Directed with aplomb by Georgie Staight (Dubailand, Finborough 2017) and staged on a minimalist set, it has fault-lines. On occasion, Knightley’s transmogrification into three key characters jars. The interviewer’s unprofessionalism – not telling Chang she would be confronting the deputy Japanese ambassador, not the main man and losing some of his cue cards – also deflects from the overwhelming strength of the play.

But these are minute criticisms. Into The Numbers makes for compelling viewing. Like a ride on the Big Dipper, it will make you feel sick but afterwards you will feel wiser for the experience. Our ability to inflict pain on our fellow man has no bounds.

Iris Chang: Elizabeth ChanInterviewer/Brett/Doctor: Timothy Knightley
Nanking victim relative/victim/ensemble: Jennifer Lim
Minnie Vautrin/ensemble: Amy Molloy
Deputy ambassador/soldier/ensemble: Mark Ota

Georgie Staight: Director
Isabella Van Braeckel: Set and Costume Designer

Into The Numbers runs until 28 January
http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

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