THE MISTAKE at the Arcola Theatre
“This is not an easy watch by any stretch, but it’s an important one.”
“Not so long ago in a land far away…” Michael Mears begins, as though telling an old folk tale. The tragedy of Hiroshima does indeed feel like a story, so unreal in its violence and scope, so evil in its intentions. But of course, it’s not a story: On the 6th August 1945 at 8:15am, the USA dropped the first atomic bomb, killing around 100,000 citizens and injuring generations to come.
Mears’ script tells the tale from multiple perspectives- a young woman caught in the blast, the pilot who actually did the deed, and a scientist whose research was integral to the initial science that made it possible. In this way, we see, not just the catastrophic effects, but also how many people were involved in the decision, and how many opportunities they had to make a different one.
Mears and Emiko Ishii play multiple roles, swapping easily with the mere change of an accent and a different jacket. It’s easy enough to understand who is playing whom, whilst also having the effect of showing how much all of these people have in common. If one had simply been born in a different time or country, how different their destinies might have been.
The performances are generally understated, allowing the script, often verbatim, to do the talking. It’s tempting to imagine this with a full cast, but Mears and Ishii do an excellent job at keeping storylines clear and lending a different atmosphere to each character.
What with all the chopping and changing between timelines and characters, and the major occurrence happening right at the beginning, the dynamics of tension are a little erratic, but I suppose the alternative would have been a sustained tension, which would have been emotionally exhausting, even more so than this story already necessarily is.
Mark Friend’s staging is respectfully simple- a chalk board, a walking stick, and two briefcases full of costumes do all the heavy lifting. Where called for, the chalk board becomes the unsteady wings of a plane, the walking stick becomes a spade, shovelling dead bodies into a fire. The only prop that remains sacred is a small red notebook, the diary of 21-year-old Nomura Shigeko who survived the initial blast, only to become one of its victims in a slow, painful death caused by radiation.
This is not an easy watch by any stretch, but it’s an important one. Mears has found a way to communicate a catastrophe that is near unspeakable, forcing his audience to look directly at what humanity is capable of, and asking if we really learned anything from this mistake.
Reviewed on 31st January 2023
by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Simon Richardson
Previously reviewed at this venue: