Anniversaries: 150 for the Finborough Theatre, 80 for Nanking. Into The Numbers isn’t a perfect production, but once again the Finborough shows its excellent feel for European premieres, revivals of plays, and new writing. Christopher Chen’s sensitive script cares about conveying the atrocity, as far as words even can, but also cares deeply for the figure at the centre of this play: author and historian Iris Chang.
Chang committed suicide in 2004, after a long struggle with her mental health and having made a significant impact on the way we think about Nanking and the history and lot of Chinese immigrants generally with her hugely influential books The Rape of Nanking (1997) and The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (2003). Even the most cursory research into Nanking leaves you with a sense of disgust and dirtiness; Into The Numbers focuses on the effect that writing a whole book on the matter had on Chang herself, here played by Elizabeth Chan.
Comparisons to Sarah Kane are unavoidable, if only for the attention paid to women’s mental heath: time slows and stretches as an interview is intercut with other scenes from Chang’s life, domestic and fantastic together. Her depression expands to take up the whole of the stage, and the whole of time. Sometimes the lights blaze out, sometimes they gently wink. Chang sees Minnie Vautrin (Amy Molloy), an American missionary in Nanking at the time who worked to support and save thousands of Chinese, and also committed suicide soon after her return to America in 1941. The Deputy Ambassador for Japan (Mark Ota), in an interview with Chang, paints her request for acknowledgement from Japan of the atrocities as mere retroactive outrage, and as Ota also plays the Japanese soldier from the massacre who threatens her in the scene immediately following, we’re left in no doubt of the historical violence Japan continues to enact with its refusal of responsibility.
Figures keep telling Chang “she has seen it, too”. She does not want to hear this. Chen’s writing is at times very lyrical, especially as he builds to an agonising finale. Chan is very strong throughout, but Timothy Knightley, who plays her husband, her doctor and her interviewer, is least strong in the first role, failing to really touch us and resorting to shouting at times. What excites me most about Into The Numbers is Chen’s choice of subject matter, both humanist and bold – we must care about what happened to Iris Chang, to the people of Nanking, to those who perpetrated these war crimes. Chen is daring in constructing a representation of a real person who died so recently and to talk about her and the massacre is brave. It’s interesting to watch Chan playing Chang delivering a lecture and to wonder how close to life this is, but that’s the least important aspect of an altogether very important play.
Into The Numbers is playing at the Finborough Theatre until the 27 January 2018
Photo: Scott Rylander