Review: The Seven Streams of the River Ota, National Theatre

Theatre today is beginning to err more toward bitesize plays, accepting people’s shortening attention spans rather than challenging them. The epics of the past seem few and far between, most likely due to the risk that such shows pose if they do not draw the audiences they need to break even. Once again, however, thanks to the stalwart National Theatre with its dedicated audience, Robert Lepage has returned with a revitalised production of The Seven Streams of the River Ota.

Seven Streams begins in 1945 following the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a critical moment in history that underpins the events of the play. In Hiroshima, scarred by the radiation of the bomb, a Japanese woman conceives a child with an American army photographer. As time moves across the next 54 years, this act of conception pulls lives together and creates stories that we track across Japan, the United States and Amsterdam, bringing us back to Japan in ‘99, just as water eventually flows back to where it began.

Running at just a little over seven hours, this play may seem to some as more of an endurance test than a enjoyable theatre trip. However, to experience this play is to live it, to absorb almost six decades of life in only seven short hours and by segmenting the acts, we are allowed to take it in piece by piece. Just as the river Ota has seven streams, so does this drama have seven acts, each act following a slightly different narrative in a new time and place. What Lepage does fantastically is to make each act seem not only like a change of scene, but also a change in style and storytelling. From the naturalistic, to the comedic, to the absurd; each act keeps its own pace, never frightened to explore the quiet of the moments as if a note is resonating through the auditorium.

Along with references to the Japanese art forms Kabuki and Noh, the production also draws on various themes and theatrical tricks in an effort to completely differentiate it’s seven streams. Shadow and light create an image of Japan through semi-transparent screens, the Theresienstadt concentration camp is a trick of mirrors, projected video is used to give us context to certain elements of the former scenes, whilst a play within a play lends slapstick to Expo ’70 in Osaka. Subtitles are used throughout and give an authenticity to the dialogue rather than wondering why all the characters speak English so well.

The show is underscored by (mostly) live music performed on the stage in tandem with the scene, as well as a real focus on incidental sound. One of the most crushing moments in the first act is simply having to listen to the American’s boots on the gravel as he leaves. This soundscape ties the scenes together, almost commenting on the action (sometimes comically) but always in symbiosis with the actors, to their thoughts, actions and emotions. 

As someone who is fascinated with Japanese history and culture, I find it intriguing how this production really embodies a lot of Japanese elements in its production design. The set begins as a simple Japanese house with sliding wooden doors, these doors are used liberally but effectively – whilst behind the closed doors the set is carefully changed by the crew, sliding open to reveal a new scene. The house shifts seamlessly into a train station, a tenement block, a sushi bar, the backstage of a theatre, whilst always maintaining this sliding effect reminiscent of traditional style Japanese houses. Whilst actually quite complicated to achieve, the effect it gives is of simplicity and in keeping with the overall tone of the play. Every element of this production was put together with such clarity of thought from every angle of the production team. 

The multicultural incorporation of the play seems to resonate with today’s audience and an ongoing push for inclusivity within theatre as well as society. This blending of culture is the heart of the play and really lends to both the comic, and heart wrenching moments; addressing matters of sex, sexuality, drugs, love, liberation, victimisation, AIDs, modernity, but never forcing anything on the watcher. Lepage just places it in front of you to take, or leave.

The cast adapted exceptionally well across multiple roles throughout the show, some accidental to the main plot and some essential, always rounded and deep with backstory that was clearly visible. For me Rebecca Blankenship fires on all cylinders in this production and her standout performance is full of heart and courage, really challenging us as an audience. For all involved it is an immense achievement, carrying a show for such a long stretch without dropping an ounce of it – it even feels cruel for me to single out  Blankenship, or anyone in the cast or crew (who, joining in for the curtain call, looked exhausted).

If you have the time to really give yourself over to the theatre for a day and immerse yourself in another world, then catch this limited run of The Seven Streams of the River Ota. There are few experiences in life like this and we can all learn something from its taking part.

This performance has been cancelled and the National Theatre is currently closed until further notice. For more information visit the National Theatre website.