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Into the Numbers review at Finborough Theatre – ‘fascinating, if oblique’

Timothy Knightley and Elizabeth Chan in Into the Numbers at Finborough Theatre, London. Photo: Scott Rylander Timothy Knightley and Elizabeth Chan in Into the Numbers at Finborough Theatre, London. Photo: Scott Rylander

In 1937, some 300,000 Chinese civilians were raped, tortured and murdered by Japanese soldiers in the city of Nanking. Christopher Chen’s new play asks how we might begin to comprehend such a fact by taking as its focus Iris Chang, the author whose bestselling book, The Rape of Nanking, brought the event into Western public consciousness, and who suffered from depression and committed suicide in 2004.

It’s a fascinating, if rather oblique, piece of writing, which takes as its basis a public lecture and interview with Chang, and transforms this variously into scenes between Chang and her husband, doctor and ghostly apparitions from Nanking.

The interview form initially feels laboured and cumbersome, but gains poignancy in its more dream-like sections, and in its suggestion that the massacre and Chang’s depression share a common status of inexpressibility. Numbers, and words, are rendered painfully inadequate, and if the play similarly feels as if it falls just short of the insight it is reaching towards, this is only indicative of its themes.

It’s a sentiment expressed in Isabella Van Braeckel’s design, a grey platform set on top of rubble, eloquently suggesting the inaccessibility of the past. A tense, brooding sound design by Benjamin Winter helps to shape the 90 minute production when it occasionally sags.

The most memorable feature of the production, however, is Elizabeth Chan’s performance as Chang – she invests her with a fierce sense of purpose and clarity of thought, which makes her mental unravelling all the more wretched.

 

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Verdict
A thought-provoking but flawed play about understanding historical atrocities
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