Pluto at the Barbican REVIEW

Pluto at the Barbican REVIEW

0 comments 📅14 February 2018, 09:00

Five of the seven greatest robots known to man have been killed. Ripped apart and destroyed beyond repair, two large horns stick out from their lifeless bodies – the only sign of their mysterious assailant who disappears -quite literally- with the wind. Atom and Geschict are the only two left, and the shadow of the killer looms ominously over them. So, when the latter is informed by Europol that a human has also been killed he decides to take on the case.

Leaving his wife Helena behind in Germany, the detective heads to Japan to find out more, but most of all to meet the country’s little boy robot. He realises that the killer must also be a robot, one that has managed to do what the world thought was impossible – kill a living being. The former peace envoy is his only hope for solving this case, and after explaining the situation to Atom the little boy decides to join in and help, even at the risk of his own life.

Adapted from Naoki Urasawa’s manga of the same name, which itself is based on Osamu Tezuka’s most famous work Astro Boy, this play has been re-imagined through the eyes of Belgian director and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Himself an avid fan of both manga artists, Cherkaoui has created something incredible with this play. Approaching the topic as someone that knows the work inside and out, he’s taken the story and put his own twist on it through dancers and puppetry to create something truly epic on stage.

Each actor gives an incredible performance, but it is Tao Tsuchiya’s role as both Helena and Atom’s little sister Uran that is the most impressive. At only 22-years-old, Tsuchiya has already become quite popular in her home country and seeing her perform on stage makes it clear why that’s the case. She wholly embodies her characters, transforming from one to the other in the blink of an eye. She subtly changes her movements to bring each character to life, Uran is energetic and childish, while Helena is demure and soft-spoken. The two couldn’t be further from each other, but Tsuchiya makes it look easy, a tell-tale sign of just how much work she’s putting into her characterisations of the two women.

Mirai Moriyama is impressive in a different way, as Atom he is charming and loveable. The goodness of his character shines through his performance, and while he might not be a boy like his character this doesn’t matter as he steps out on stage. This is only emphasised when he joins the dancers, particularly in a moving scene that emulates a battle between him and an unknown force. Both a talented actor and dancer, Moriyama is able to move with grace and can easily dominate the audience’s attention even as he dances to difficult choreography.

The dancers perform as part of background and move the sets around in quick swift movements, but they are just as important as their actor counterparts. They move in intriguing ways to become part of the electronic systems that surround the robots, act behind-the-scenes as the many puppet robots that feature in the production -no matter how big or small-, and in one visually stunning scene they shadow an upgraded Atom to create the illusion that he’s moving at a dizzying speed. Cherkaoui’s choreography is very effective because of the way it uses and enhances their movements, and both actors and dancers present these steps with expert precision on stage.

The striking visual effects also add to the impressive production. Taiki Ueda’s videography sees images from the manga presented in one moment, and the next a square frame is used to make it seem like the actors are in a panel themselves. The subtitles are written literally on the wall, appearing above each character’s head in a way that’s reminiscent of the show’s origins. Ueda’s set design transports you from one country to the next with ease, and this imagery helps to support Cherkaoui’s unique vision in a wonderfully unexpected way. Another thing that stands out are the puppets, intricately detailed and expertly brought to life, each robot has their own individual identity. Through quick movements, and funny voices, they quickly become fleshed-out characters.

Pluto is, of course, the most impressive because of his sheer scale. He towers over the stage, and the puppet is animated by at least four people to be transformed into the menacing villain. Although he only roars, his subtle movements and interactions with the other characters it becomes apparent that he’s a misunderstood being, turned to the ‘dark side’ because of things that were out of his control. His scale is juxtaposed by Atom, who flies around him in an epic battle near the final act (a clever trick that sees Moriyama be held and carried by dancers in black). Dramatic music swells in the background as the two clash, they are the robot equivalent of David and Goliath as they exchange blows. The intensity of the moment is felt from the outset, and it’s certainly the highlight of the show.

With Pluto, Cherkaoui has made something bold and beautiful. A production that stands out for its incredible performances, props, and visual imagery. The story is moving, and its presentation on stage makes it even more so. This is as much a tale of what it means to be human as it is a visual masterpiece, and to be given the chance to see it performed in the UK was a true pleasure.  Review by Roxy Simons

Director: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Manga: Naoki Urasawa (Pluto), Tezuka Osamu (Astro Boy)
Cast: Mirai Moriyama, Tao Tsuchiya, Shunsuke Daito, Kazutoyo Yoshimi, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, and Akira Emoto

© Pluto photos by Yoshie Kobayashi

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