It’s almost impossible to know what to say

Japanese school children dedicate a collection of paper origami cranes to the memorial for Sadako Sasaki in Hiroshima Peace Park
Photo: Andrew Dunn

In 1990, the Royal National Theatre embarked on an ambitious international tour featuring two towering Shakespearean plays, King Lear and Richard III, with groundbreaking lead performances from Brian Cox and Ian McKellen, respectively. Their first destination beyond the UK was Japan, and it was there, at the end of their ten-day visit, that they visited Hiroshima—a moment of reflection amidst the intensity of their theatrical roles. Cox, who recorded the entire tour in his diary, was profoundly moved by this trip, in particular the statue of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who succumbed to leukaemia a decade after the bomb and has since become an emblem of peace and resilience.

The Diary Entry

Monday, September 24, 1990

It’s 8.00 a.m. and we’ve just caught the ferry to Miyajima, an island just off the coast of Hiroshima … you can hear the noise of the engines in the background … We’ve just moved from the Red Gate which rises fifty feet up out of the sea … We’ve climbed to a shrine up in the hills, incredibly peaceful. It’s extraordinary here, the deer come up to you; Miyajima is known as the deer island and the deer are so gentle. GONG. That was the bell being sounded to carry our prayers. I am just about to sound it. GONG.

I’ve just visited the peace museum in Hiroshima. It’s almost impossible to know what to say. It’s quite devastating. I’ve always avoided this kind of museum in the past, but I think it’s very important to begin to understand something about Japan and how certain things came about. It’s a strange city, Hiroshima, it’s particularly empty at the moment. People usually come in August, not September. But walking round this museum which is mainly devoted to the day of the bomb—August 6, my son’s birthday—seeing the stopped watches, the shadows cast by the heat intensity, human shadows burnt into the ground, the effects of black rain, the keloids growing after twenty-four hours, a month or so, on the victims, such a scale of devastation is quite unbelievable. It seems to me that everyone should see this. The most moving sight is the statue of a little girl who died of leukaemia. She had asked for paper cranes to be constructed in memory of the children who died in Hiroshima and there are literally millions surrounding her.

Further Reading

Brian Cox’s diary from this period was published in 1982 by Methuen London, titled, The Lear Diaries: The Story of the Royal National Theatre’s Productions of Shakespeare’s Richard III and King Lear. Unlike this particular entry, most of Cox’s diary relates to the theatre production, and it’s a riveting, revealing book.


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