The Garden of Words is a heartfelt story about connection and loneliness, with an intimacy that is harnessed beautifully in the space of Park Theatre. The atmosphere, drawn together by the sounds of nature and the use of projected artwork in the style of the original film, is absorbing and apt. It is graceful and tender, with creative staging and intimate storytelling.
The projections were soft and beautiful, and were sometimes animated in time with the music, mirroring the themes of synchronisation and connection. This use of projection helped to include elements of the original film in the exploration of a new form, combining otherworldly animation with the humanity of theatre. I sometimes felt that the ties to this original form, however, prevented the play from fully blossoming.
The fragmentation of the narrative, no doubt stemming from the seamless cuts in the film, disrupts our ability to connect fully with the characters. Our only grasp of the play’s chronology is through the timecards at the top of the screen (which are sometimes lost to viewers with seats on either side of the stage). It would have been nice to spend more time with each character and to see some experimentation with the staging of the passing of time. For example, in one moment, the actors performed a balletic movement sequence including the billowing of large sheets of clear plastic, creating an image of gusts of wind. This could have been developed further to explore a range of weather conditions, and therefore the changing seasons.
Moments like this, when the play brings something new to the source material, felt much stronger. The most effective elements were those that were distinctly theatrical and therefore unique to its new form. For example, I really enjoyed the use of puppetry and physical theatre; making a letter float on the wind and creating a busy train carriage with only the actors’ bodies really helped capture the physicality of a story about connectivity. The direction would have benefitted from more moments like these, and the performances too; Hiroki Berrecloth and Aki Nakagawa, as the two leads, were restrained and lovely, while the rest of the cast were limited by the weaker subplots of the other characters.
I wish that the exploration of these characters and their relationships had included more moments of uninterrupted silence. As the director Alexandra Rutter discussed, the story represents the importance of a ‘powerful space to sit with feelings of sadness, rather than trying to ‘fix’ them’. This is one of the loveliest parts of the story - where two characters share a space of sadness and loneliness and imbue it with acceptance and love - and yet the script refuses to sit in these spaces for too long. We are constantly moving through time and across different characters’ perspectives, distracting from the intimacy at the play’s centre.
It is, though, a very human story. And most importantly, I think it is great to see a growing appreciation for the beauty of anime in this country, as this play represents the increasing success of anime-to-stage adaptations.
The Garden of Words plays at Park Theatre until 9th September. For more tickets and information, you can follow the link here.
AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | Photography by Piers Foley