Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Spaced Out

In theory it sounds like something I would love. I am somewhat fascinated by Japanese culture and the Bush Theatre is very much in my good books after their superb production of Elling. So it was in an open and easy-going mood that I trundled over to Shepherds Bush this week to see Trance, the UK premiere of a popular play by Japanese writer/director Shoji Kokami. Even the use of the term ‘hilarious consequences’ in the press blurb, didn’t dent my upbeat demeanour.

Trance is an intense three-hander that examines issues of sanity and identity and the fragility of both. It concerns three school friends who reunite in later life. Masa is a freelance journalist, unsatisfied with his job and with his life, who is starting to experience blackouts and periods where he feels strangely distanced from his own actions (and there’s a joke in here about me after a few gins, but I’m going to step around it). The psychiatrist he goes to visit, Reiko, turns out to be someone he had a relationship with at school – though this apparently presents no barriers to her treating him - and she diagnoses the onset of schizophrenia.

Sanzo, the last of the trio, is now working as a drag artist and after a chance meeting at a nightclub, he too becomes drawn back into Masa’s life, just as his friend’s blackouts begin to worsen and he becomes gripped by the delusion that he is, in actual fact, the deposed Emperor of Japan. Sanzo, who had a crush on Masa as a boy and who is still clearly a little in love with him, convinces Reiko to let him nurse their friend, something he does by pretending to be one of the Emperor’s eunuchs.

The play becomes odder and more elliptical as it goes along, playing Pirandello-esque games with its characters, and inviting the audience to question just who is suffering from delusions, the journalist, the drag queen, the psychiatrist or perhaps all three. Hilarious is not the word I’d use to describe this production, unless hilarious has somehow come to mean repetitive and a little strange with the odd wry laugh thrown in. Instead it felt rather stilted and underpowered, too in thrall to its own philosophical musings. It’s perhaps a predictable conclusion to come to but I suspect that on this occasion a good deal of what Kokami was trying to say, about identity, about society, has been lost in translation.

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