Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s adaptation of Pluto for Japanese Bunkamura Theatre highlights the gravitas of war in a bold production staged amongst angular comic book frames. The story from Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki’s manga (based on the foundation of Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom) begins as a murder mystery. Europol robot Inspector Gesicht strives to uncover who has been assassinating high-functioning robots, and his search leads back to the 39th Central Asian war, which has been all but forgotten by the victors.
Following Gesicht, we meet other robots: Atom (aka: Astro Boy), his sister Uran and the imprisoned BRAU 1959. The three-hour show duration allows the audience to understand the characters from their histories and strengths to their motivations. Uran’s expressive and candid nature flows through her gestures, facial expressions and dialogue. Atom crouches down in the rain to carry a snail out of harm’s way. And BRAU 1959 taunts Gesicht, alluding to shared similarities beneath the inspector’s repressed nature.
Although Pluto is more of a theatre production than a dance show, articulate movers fill the shallow space between the comic book frames and the piles of mechanical rubble strewn along the stage front. Aside from some gestural movements that emphasize the robots’ actions, the dance style is a generic liquid-like style that carries the dancers in and out of the floor. However, traces of street dance can be found in freezes, tutting and a solo with popping. The small dance interludes facilitate a distraction during set changes, and happily give the eyes a break from reading English subtitles at the very top of the set, which often need to be prioritised over viewing the actors.
As more information is gathered, Pluto transitions from a “whodunit” mystery to a deeper “Criminal Minds” type investigation. Inspector Gesicht arrives in Persia, where its inhabitants are still recovering from the thrashing of the 39th Central Asian war. Although the supposed weapons of mass destruction used to justify the invasion were never found, the destruction from the war lingers on via wreckage of the land, a stunted economy and lasting physical injuries of Persia’s citizens.
Throughout the performance, the set design, video and lighting by Taiki Ueda and Willy Cessa create stunning visual effects. In one scene, rain streams down, projected on white set pieces, while the actors walk hunched underneath umbrellas. But the graphics aren’t always sharp. A video screen displays vibrant blooms of colour as a man paints a flower field and exhibits deep inky recesses of Atom’s internal landscape. Puppets of waist-height robots and the giant sized Pluto come to life with effects that make them nearly as animated as the actors.
For all the major themes of humanity that Pluto touches upon, the play never becomes preachy. Cherkaoui simply illustrates the concepts in a modern-day fable that can teach viewers to be equally courageous and compassionate. Pluto is rife with explorations of guilt, grief, atonement, honesty and innocence. It answers the question of how to bury hatred with empathy and how to stop violence as vengeance. Just as children learn through history books and great literary works, they can easily gain insight into empathy and humanity from an afternoon at the theatre.
Do not miss this immensely riveting, revolutionary and revelatory spectacle.
Reviewed by Alison Roberts-Tse at the Barbican Theatre on 8th of February, 2018.