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The Theatreguide.London Review

Into The Numbers
Finborough Theatre   January 2018

This ambitious play by American Christopher Chen attempts both to depict the process of a mental breakdown and to explain its causes, while also educating us on a little-known horror of Twentieth-Century history. 

That may be a little too much for an eighty-minute play, and Into The Numbers is more admirable for its effort than satisfying in its success. 

The following three statements are true. In 1937 Japanese troops captured the Chinese city of Nanking and raped, tortured and murdered perhaps hundreds of thousands of victims. In 1997 Chinese-American historian Iris Chang published the first authoritative book on the massacre. In 2004 Iris Chang killed herself. 

Christopher Chen's play draws a connection between those three events, suggesting that the weight of Chang's knowledge of the raw evil represented by Nanking was too great a burden to bear. 

The play opens with a lecture and interview during Chang's book-promotion tour but keeps leaving that setting as her mind wanders to scenes with her loving but increasingly excluded husband and her concerned psychiatrist. 

Meanwhile ghosts from Nanking appear to her, alternately begging her to tell their story, threatening her if she tries, and warning her of the danger of learning too much about the human capacity for atrocity. 

Dramatically the play and Georgie Straight's production are most successful in capturing the turmoil of Chang's mind through the jumping around in time and space and the expressionistic projections of her pain and confusion. 

It is a less successful in its explanation, never really drawing a cause-and-effect connection between her research and her breakdown. (The play truthfully but perhaps unwisely acknowledges that Chang had a successful career as an academic and writer, with two further books on unrelated topics, before her suicide.) 

The weakest section of the play comes when Chang imagines a conversation with a heroic nun who was at Nanking, and begs from her some meaning to the horror. 

The dramatist's writing, which has been sharp up to that part, goes flabby as he tries to make the nun put into words what the whole play has been arguing is inexpressible in words. 

The play never really recovers from that dead spot, and the continuing depiction of Chang's mental deterioration, convincing and insightful earlier, lapses into fuzzy incoherence. 

Elizabeth Chan convincingly and movingly captures all the sides of Chang's crumbling psychology, from confident and authoritative lecturer to confused and frightened witness to her own approaching madness. 

Tripling as interviewer, husband and psychiatrist, Timothy Knightley does not differentiate fully among the three – which may, of course, be the point. Jennifer Lin, Amy Molloy and Mark Ota offer support in small roles written as too single-dimensional to allow the actors much to do. 

And despite our being hit with individual anecdotes and loads of statistics (thus the title), the Nanking Massacre keeps drifting into the background as what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin, the thing that starts the story off but is of little real interest in itself.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Into The Numbers - Finborough Theatre 2018

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