‘Gaman’ is a Japanese word that cannot be adequately translated into English. Instead, Director Ailin Conant unravels its meaning through a play that is drenched in metaphors. Fish are central figures in this allegorical exposition, whether they be earth-bound, tank-starved, market-bought, free-swimming or fictionalised fantasies. Words themselves become self-referential, as Dipika Guha’s script carefully builds its own self-contained mode of expression, weaving together a rich individualistic texture of Japanese-American vocabulary.

We follow the life of Tomomi, a Japanese girl who voyages to America in the years prior to the Hiroshima bombing. She is drifting to a country, and a future self, that resist her arrival. Her narrative passage accords with the mythical Koi fish, who swim tirelessly against the current in order to achieve a beautiful moment of metamorphosis.

Tomoko Komura plays young Tomomi, exposing her duplicity with beautiful subtlety. She embeds moments of self-conscious introspection into the performance, both freeing and feeding our imagination. She allows us only the occasional glimpse of the poignant tumult that persists below Tomomi’s serene façade. This idea is central to “gaman”, which is achieved through the compression of personal suffering to a dark and undetectable corner, using patience, perseverance, self-denial and tolerance. You-Ri Yamanaka melds into the protagonist when Tomomi grows up; she succeeds in bringing out the beauty of her character’s intense stoicism, revealing the diamonds that finally emerge after carbon has been sufficiently pressurised.

The play’s spatial dimensions are intricately composed by set designer Helen Croyston, who uses three iridescent curtains to softly define the parameters of the on-stage action. The opacity of the curtains, combined with the mellow hues of the walls and the light, gives the space a feeling of fluidity. This encourages multiple ways of seeing the tale, as well as a constant re-contextualisation of the objects that tell it. It’s a bit like the thrill imbued by a magical Chinese Box, that just keeps on giving. A quintessentially Japanese table acts as the fishmonger’s stall, the marital dining table, the fish tank, and ultimately Tomomi’s hospital bed. People as well as objects multiply: five actors inhabit an incredible thirteen personas. And each part is so convincing and distinctive that I only realised when a modest group of five emerged for the curtain call.

This diversity of both functionality and personality is very relevant to Tomomi’s version of selfhood. Her own intersectional history is continually responding to prescribed ways of acting, in terms of racial pressure, sexual orientation, ageing, and gender norms. The Art of Gaman is an under-stated work of art. It is sculpted in a way that allows form and meaning to act in harmonious reflection.

The Art of Gaman is playing at Theatre503 until 27 October. For more information and tickets, click here.