Gateway Theatre, Studio B
6500 Gilbert Rd., Richmond
Through May 14
It’s hard to imagine a more timely play than this.
As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the allied victory
in Europe, as Chinese and Japanese clash over Japan’s attitudes towards its wartime behaviour,
as preparations continue for Saddam Hussein’s trial and American commanders
are exonerated of any responsibility for events at Abu Graibh, Vancouver playwright
and actor Hiro Kanagawa tells the story of one of the first modern war crimes
Through Kanagawa’s revisionist lens we get a fascinating
new angle on the horrors and complexities of war, and a deeper
understanding of why “military
justice” is a classic oxymoron.
The trial of Japanese General Tomoyuki
Yamashita, nicknamed “Tiger of Malaya” for
his defeat of the British at Singapore, pre-dated Nuremberg. On December
7, 1945, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he was found guilty by an American
tribunal of permitting soldiers under his command to commit atrocities during
the battle for Manila, during which 100,000 Filipino civilians died. A few
months later he was hanged.
The play narrows its focus to Yamashita, played with fierce
dignity by Kanagawa himself, and his American defence team: ferocious
Hilroy (William Macdonald in a performance worthy of Jack Nicholson),
Captain Lederman (a delightful Alex Ferguson, providing earnest conviction,
righteous anger and welcome comic relief), and Japanese-American translator
(a beautifully conflicted Maiko Bae Yamamoto).
Lest we forget the real
casualties in this battle between victors and vanquished, a Filipina
named Rosario visits Yamashita in his nightmares.
voicing the anguish of the war‘s civilian victims, especially its
women, Donna Soares powerfully portrays a witness who never testifies
at the trial but
presents the most damning evidence of all.
A key character in the drama is American General Douglas MacArthur,
Supreme Commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, who never
appears on stage.
From the beginning
it’s clear that Yamashita’s is to be a show trial, carefully choreographed
by MacArthur for his own glory. Even the heavy civilian death toll in the battle
for Manila is blamed as much on MacArthur’s tactics as on Yamashita’s.
No one gets out of here with clean hands.
Playwright Kanagawa goes so far out of his way to reveal each
complex, equivocal humanity that it sometimes looks like dramatic convenience.
Hilroy, apparently a repulsive racist, turns out in his own gruff way to be a
good attorney and a great guy. The Jewish defence lawyer and Nisei translator
both have compromised positions to negotiate. And Yamashita wrestles with so
many layers of guilt and innocence, goodness, responsibility and fallibility
that he seems almost Shakespearean.
To Kanagawa’s credit, and director Rachel Ditor’s, these contrivances
never distract us from the important issues at the heart of this audacious play.