In yet another example of established Japanese playwright-directors bringing their work over to the UK and meeting a muted or mixed response, the reviews for Shoji Kokami’s Halcyon Days, currently at the Riverside Studios, have not been ecstatic.
A two-star review from the Guardian says:
The evening is oddly pitched and extended, as the characters take to amateur dramatics and start acting out a whimsical Japanese fairytale about a Red Ogre and his friendship with a Blue Ogre. The play’s message, about shifting identity in the face of the pressures of urban life, is rammed home repeatedly, with little finesse. It doesn’t help that the heavy-handed comedy is often predicated on outmoded attitudes to gay sexuality and mental illness.
Another poor notice from the Independent highlights that “the piece furnishes few insights into those morbid internet forums which encourage the lonely and depressed to form suicide pacts with strangers.” The cast and translation are praised as valiant in the face of a “backward production”.
The choice of sitcom-esque comedy to deal with a subject matter is particularly targeted. Engaging with tough social problems through comedy is a difficult taboo to break, and only with finesse is it likely to succeed. The Independent gives Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular as an example of a play “that intensif[ies] our sense of the mental anguish of would-be suicides through riotous laughter”. Judging by the British press Kokami fell into the also-rans camp. At least one blogger also notes the “heavy-handed” style of the play.
In the risk of sounding like an indulger in the art of Schadenfreude, it must be said that much the same thing happened with Kokami’s Trance at the Bush a few years back, and also with a lot of Hideki Noda’s productions in London, even when he has Colin Teevan lending a helping hand.
In a related development, Sadler’s Wells has also been staging Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s TeZuKa , a multi-media, interdisciplinary homage to Osamu Tezuka and met a similar baffled response.
In a review that praised the elaborate projections and Nitin Sawhney’s score, The Telegraph criticized the length and the general mayhem and clutter of the piece:
With dancers, martial-artists, musicians and even a calligrapher all on stage, there is often so much going on (not only contrasting clusters of movement … but also text, speech and elaborate projections) that you find your eyes darting hither and thither across the stage, unsure of what to focus on.
One wonders how Yukio Ninagawa will fare in the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival with his production of Cymbeline. Judging by how his Lear and other Bard stagings have been greeted in the past, I’m not holding my breath just yet.