Barbican Theatre, London
February 8, 2017
A reinterpretation of Astro Boy by Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki, Pluto is directed by Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; his first full-length theatre production. Be warned! If you are expecting something along the lines of previous work from the Belgian choreographer, give this a miss; unless you fancy 3½ hours from curtain up to curtain down of a realisation of a Japanese comic – in Japanese.
Most of it is in play form with subtitles projected onto various bits of the set, but after 20 minutes of trying to guess where they would appear next, I got bored and gave up. What really sapped my will to live, though was the sheer banality of the script, the sort of dialogue that might be expected from a comic, delivered with a matching lack of subtlety.
The characters are as two dimensional as might be expected of the original medium. The wise professor, superhero boy, cartoon villains, one-dimensional US president… The plot, stretched to breaking point over two long acts, is centred on a world that has survived a catastrophic war and where humans co-exist with robots.
It is not difficult to see why this scenario was created by a man who survived the horrors of Japan from the 1930s to the 1960s and then saw its meteoric technological domination of the post second world war world. However, it has very little to say beyond hackneyed sentiment.
There is a giant puppet monster which, Wizard of Oz-like, the boy hero fights. Another puppet monster, all tentacles and headlamp eyes, is rather endearing, although not meant to be, and imaginatively executed by several synchronised performers. A third puppet is a ghastly piece of kitsch (think Hello Kitty in all its full anthropomorphic horror) that has been bashed by a car so is a bit wobbly on its feet. It sells flowers to passing tourists and dreams of becoming like the wonder robot who went to Holland to get tulips and scatter loveliness throughout the universe. Quite what we are supposed to make of that is not made clear.
Suddenly we find that the ‘much loved’ global super robots are dying. Or are they being ‘murdered’? Eventually there is only one super robot left – a teddy bear with red flashing eyes, perched on a van Gogh-like yellow chair. It is called Dr Roosevelt and turns out to have been the mastermind behind all the bad things that are happening. I nearly stood up and cheered when it was finally decapitated, not because it was a ‘villain’ or because it hinted that the whole thing might just be coming to a close at last, but because I had been aching to punch its lights out (literally) from the very beginning. I suspect, given the reaction from the audience, I was not the only one.
The boy wonder, actually called “Atom”, comes in to save the day but seems to lose his super powers getting sucked into some kind of (very cleverly realised) oblivion that will re-awaken the nightmares for those of us who were freaked out by the man-eating sphere in The Prisoner.
The saving grace of the evening and the one thing that prevented me from chewing my arms off in despair was Taiki Ueda’s brilliant set. It carries the plot on when movement (such as it is) and dialogue don’t. We are immediately catapulted into a cartoon page as tessellating parallelograms reveal visages that split to become individual frames and are also used in block form to create furniture, a dais, a grave. The foils are lined with chunks of broken robots that form a frame and serve to enhance the other-worldliness.
The lighting is equally brilliant, now bright green turning the frame into foliage, now shifting monochrome that makes forms appear to shimmer and creates a sense of the falling ash of total destruction. The ending is shown as a huge shimmering sheet lit with multi-coloured projections that invoke the weird ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Alas, the enjoyment engendered by the set and lighting comes crashing back to the tedious reality as the parting lines, so evocative of the whole work, assault our ears “Professor, do you think that the world will ever give up hate?”. “Well, son, I really hope so” – or as near as dammit to make no difference.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is clearly a massive fan but his talents are squandered by the abysmal script. He counter-intuitively creates flowing tai chi-like movements for the robots that are not puppets or that do not pass as humans and there is a clever scene where Atom seems to splits into Shiva-like mirror images but there isn’t enough of it.
This evocation of the comic belittles the horrors of the late twentieth-century and does nothing to address the mounting worries about AI in the twenty-first. The atrocities perpetrated then as now are not the work of super or sub-human villains but people who were capable and culpable, and for which Japan is still paying the price. For a man who lived through that to name the hero ‘Atom’ is mystifying. Perhaps we are meant to see the redemption that is possible too? All in all, a topic that cries out for far more nuanced treatment.
I’ll stick to Desperate Dan and the Bash Street Kids.