‘I don’t understand it, but I know that it looks cool,’ is a sentiment that haunts me with embarrassing regularity. Fashion, music and modern art are the most famous causes of this foot-shuffling blankness, but in my personal experience, comic books and exceptionally-long-running television series are reliable triggers.
Contemporary art, you see, is ripe for rambling through in your own special way. Give me a whitewashed room with a circle of freestanding radiators in it and I’ll hand you back a dissertation plan. Art like that is the proverbial black canvas, a free for all and sundry prepared to start babbling with enough conviction. But the problem gets a lot trickier when it’s clear that the artwork is meant to be conveying a specific ‘something’ – a storyline, for example – and this ‘something’ is harder to grasp than an earring back that’s somehow fallen inside your bra.
Such was the case with Pluto at the Barbican. Let’s start with the facts we can be sure of. Directed and choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Pluto is the stage version of Osamu Tezuka’s manga Astro Boy, whose main character is known as Atom to Japanese audiences. Its transition into theatre has been at the hands of artist Naoki Urasawa, writer Takashi Nagasaki and filmmaker Macoto Tezka. The set design is by Taiki Ueda and the costume is by Isao Tsuge.
The other thing I can report with certainty is that this is a visually stunning piece of theatre, a discombobulatingly epic bit of stage design and technical wizardry. Ueda’s design both pays homage to the iconic format of graphic novels – the individual panels separated by thick, white borders in particular – and augments it with things-that-can-only-be-done-on-stage. Things like the delightfully kitsch springing up of colourful tulips and the glowing red eyes of the evil cousin of Aloysius Flyte.
Cherkaoui’s choreography acts similarly, with the robot characters surrounded by a black-clothed ensemble framing and mirroring their movements. Whilst echoing the depiction of movement in manga, the invisible/visible use of the group encapsulate all that can be conveyed by controlled and repeated movements of the human body – in this case, the suggestion that the robots have their actions determined and dictated (perhaps like all of us, eh Spinoza?).
Of a dedicated and physically fluid cast, Tao Tsuchiya stands out for the way she morphs brilliantly between playing cutesy schoolgirl Uran in bunches and a pink mackintosh, and the buttoned-up Helena, a middle-aged wife saturated in sadness.
The projections, also, are some of the most neatly and effectively integrated I’ve seen on stage, creating a whirlpool of overlapping manga images, live action, dance and enough chiaroscuro to fill a wing of the National Gallery.
But the plot?
Oh yeah, the plot.
As they say: I lost the plot.
Pluto was on at the Barbican. Click here for more details.