Pluto at The Barbican – Michael’s Review

The most powerful robots in the world are being murdered. So too are a group of humans who are the leading experts in robot technology. Detective Gesicht, himself one of the seven strongest robots on Earth, has been given the case – but his findings seem to suggest that a robot could be behind the killings. And that’s impossible.

We as a species are ever evolving; our culture building on top of itself. As such our art too builds on the art of the past. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon’s adaptation of Pluto by Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki currently being performed at the Barbican understands this completely and may be the epitome of this notion. Pluto, an all-time classic manga was Urasawa’s adaptation of one arc of Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom (known in the West as Astro Boy), expanded, elaborated and enriched with wider themes. To delve further back, Mighty Atom was heavily influenced by Disney’s Pinocchio (itself an adaption). And here we find ourselves, another layer deep, with Cherkaoui’s theatrical adaptation of an adaptation. We also come full circle on another facet of our culture as Pluto finds itself on stage, the place where the word robot was first used for Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots in 1921. We build on ourselves. We grow.

As a work of theatre, Pluto brings together and builds on various theatrical forms and techniques. It blends physical theatre and dance with puppetry, mime, deep sound design and stunning projections. They all work in conjunction with one another to enrich the experience. It is performed in Japanese with English subtitles projected onto the backdrop, which makes it feel like watching a manga brought to life. Adapting Pluto to a new medium allows the company to interpret the story through forms unique to theatre and brings new life and meditation to the book’s themes.

Urasawa’s Pluto ran from 2003 to 2009, and covered 65 acts. It was a sprawling murder mystery which examined what it means to be human, the tragedies of war and how we deal with grief. To fit the plot to a three-hour running time, Cherkaoui removes a few of the subplots and characters, and also starts the action with some of the great robots already destroyed. What this does is further focus the narrative on Gesicht and Atom; transforming the layered mystery of the killings to Gesicht, played by Shunsuke Daitoh, solving the mystery of his self, his missing memories, his evolution and whether being able to hate is what defines us as being human. Daitoh’s Gesicht is a restrained and methodical detective; his arms often pinned to his sides. It also tightens Atom’s key role in the story. Mirai Maoriyama adds fluid movement to the heroic Atom, charming and bouncy in the first act but balancing the coldness felt by Atom in the later parts of the show well. And Tao Tsuchiya as both Atom’s sister Uran and Gesicht’s wife Helena is phenomenal. She manages to be funny and precocious as Uran, clutching at her skirt when nervous, or running and humming the Mighty Atom animé theme in moments of joy. She adds layered depth to Uran and is absolutely heartbreaking as Helena. The scenes with Atom and Uran are snappy and a delight to watch, and conversely the scenes between Gesicht and Helena reveal a slow-burning, powerfully affecting romance.

Cherkaoui and scriptwriter Kenichi Tani smartly open this adaptation with key thematic scenes from Pluto which were previously published as flashbacks in later volumes of the manga. This sets the stage and action, and brings the images of destruction and notions of robotic perfection to the forefront of the story. Though one downside to the trimming of story is that with less space, some of the plot reveals in Act 2 appear quickly with little build and could potentially cause some confusion.

The production doesn’t shy away from its source material. Cherkaoui, who previously made another piece about Tezuka, adorns his stage with a set resembling comic panels. These modular panels are moved around the stage by the dancers / manipulators to form parts of the set like walls and fences, as screens to be projected on or as novel ways to direct the eye and frame a scene in tribute to its manga source material. Urasawa’s art is used consistently throughout the production, either in moments of homage, as news bulletins, holograms or depictions of memory. Completing the set are the horrific remains of torn, discarded, grey robot parts which line the front of the stage, a constant reminder of the tragedies which surround the narrative.

The dancers are not present solely to manipulate the set but also the actors playing the robotic characters: the manipulators descend on the actors, miming at puppeteering them, pulling on imagined threads to move limbs or they’ll button shirts which are being put on and replicate the actors’ physical actions. They work as an extension of the robots’ minds pointing out the direction of sight or focus, or miming the concept of a character having an idea. This technique highlights the characters’ robotic nature and their otherness to the audience, especially when sharing stage with the actors who are playing human beings. It also allows for powerful moments when the dancers are not surrounding the robots. Gesicht is notably never puppeteered in Act 2. The dancers are also a fundamental part of the movement when a tornado hits or in robot battles, assuming the roles of forces of nature and forces of robot; spinning around and lifting Atom into the air.

The mimed puppetry technique is inspired by Japanese bunraku puppetry, Cherkaoui once again harkening back to the past and updating it. More traditional, physical forms of puppetry are also used to depict the hulking robot Pluto and other non-human-passing robots, bringing a number of characters to life through the great work of the puppeteers and the gorgeous puppets themselves. The first reveal of Pluto’s arm is immense and intimidating, while Brau 1589, the charismatic and sociopathic robot voiced by Akira Emoto is as creepy and engaging as you would expect a robotic Hannibal Lecter to be. And don’t worry, the weather robot does appear.

Pluto is one of the most precise and intricate pieces of theatre I’ve witnessed. Its design and direction bring together various forms on-stage together, all working in tandem, never distracting or detracting from the action and never feeling sloppy. It is a play full of tiny details that I wish I could witness again to see if I could spot any piece of beauty I might have missed the first time. But with these grand designs and moving parts it doesn’t lose the impact of the emotion or the heart at its core. It is a fully evolved piece, an advanced machine that understands what it is to be human.

Pluto is on at the Barbican until Sunday 11th of February before it departs for Belgium. I highly recommend you catch it whilst you have the chance.

Michael