‘a play of ideas, particularly the nature of history and how we construct meaning from the range of disparate facts’
In 2004, a young American historian, Iris Chang, killed herself, seven years after her book The Rape of Nanking was a worldwide bestseller that highlighted the mass execution of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians by Japanese forces during the second world war.
Into the Numbers explores Chang’s short life, but is also a play of ideas, particularly the nature of history and how we construct meaning from the range of disparate facts available, and how far exploring the tragedies of the past need damage the explorer herself.
It would be a mistake think that sounds undramatic. Chen’s play is constructed around a series of events in Chang’s life – TV interviews, lectures, her disintegrating home life, the dreams she has that are peopled by ghosts of the events she has brought to life in her book.
It starts with a TV interviewer getting ‘into the numbers’. Maybe 300,000 died in the Nanking massacre; the exact number is one of those unknowable facts. This, the interviewer elicits from his questioning of Chang, is more than the ‘only’ 150,000 destroyed at Carthage, or the 90,000 of this massacre or the 50,000 of that one. There were prisoners-of-war and women and children, and strikingly babies thrown into the air and bayoneted, the kind of detail that sticks when the mind can’t make sense of an abstract number.
Elizabeth Chan’s remarkable performance as Iris Chang holds the show together as she travels from being the bright and optimistic historian who believes uncovering the truth of the past will bring a better future to becoming an introspective, perhaps paranoid woman who dreams of the dead and loses emotional contact with her living husband and shrink (who, like the TV interviewer, is skilfully played, with small, telling deviations by Timothy Knightley).
Ultimately, goodness will prevail, Chang believes in her earlier incarnation; by the end, though, the darkness has claimed her, and the promise she makes in her dreams to a dead victim that the historian can make that woman’s life meaningful after death is one that she cannot keep for her living self.
The simplicity of the Finborough’s staging forces attention on the words and ideas of the play, and Matt Cater’s lighting design quietly strengthens the dream and imagination sequences. And the gradual tightening of focus down from perhaps 300,000 unnecessary and inexplicable deaths to just a single ending leaves an audience that needs to pause before applause as the light dies.
Presented by Arsalan Sattari Productions, in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre:
INTO THE NUMBERS by Christopher Chen
Directed by Georgie Straight
Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED
2 - 27 January 2018
Box Office: http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2018/into-the-numbers.php / tel: 0844 847 1652
Reviewer David Weir’s Confessional featured in the Oran Mor Play, Pie, Pint season in Glasgow in 2017. The post-Scottish referendum family drama Better Together was at Brockley Jack Theatre, London (2016), and other plays have been performed at the Arundel and Windsor festivals, Greenwich Theatre, the Isle of Wight, and a pub lunchtime theatre in Perth, Australia. Better Together (2015) and Legacy (2011) were longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize.