The Bee is a strangely entrancing piece of Japanese theatre about the transformation of a businessman, Ido, who returns home from work one day to discover that his wife and son have been taken hostage by escaped murderous convict, Ogoro.
Hounded by an intrusive media and disregarded by an insensitive police, Ido is left with no choice but to take matters into his own hands. Played brilliantly by Kathryn Hunter, the play charts his gradual decline into a dark labyrinth of violence, rape and revenge.
Without an aptitude for victimhood, Ido attempts to utilise the skills of his profession – he is a businessman – to negotiate his way out of the lamentable situation he finds himself in. When that fails, he disarms a highly comical police officer, Anchoku, and decides his chances of rescuing his family are best served by taking hostage Ogoro’s own family.
The play’s primary feat is its ability to blend humour into such a dark scenario, manifested through the satirical look at the role of the media and the police in society, as well as its manga comic strip form. It is a form which has taken on a growing significance in Japan, as the authorities have relied on its successful exportation to ease their economic woes.
It is ironic, then, that Ido and his family are failed miserably by the state, and the two fugitives descend into a desperate battle of attrition that draws on real yakuza – Japanese organised crime syndicates – traditions. The humour comes in tempering the spectacle of the punishments: rather than mimicking the cutting off of a finger, The Beesees pencils held between fingers snapped in a series of scenes of escalating tension. The tension is partially broken when the kidnapped child volunteers his finger in anticipation, prompting a wave of unsettled laughter in the audience.
The acting, prop selection and mise-en-scène add hugely to the humour of the evening, with highlights including the use of elastic bands for noodles, a cylinder wearing a cap for a child, indelibly tangled wires depicting channels of communication and a mirror backdrop that spontaneously, then sporadically, becomes transparent.
Beneath the facetiousness and the depravity, there is a damning social critique: of the immorality of the press; of the ruthlessness of the capitalist attitudes that drive the businessman to revenge; of the eye for an eye mentality that drives a sane individual insane; essentially, of the ultimate price the bee pays for protecting itself using its sting.