Shoji Kokami, translated by Aya Ogawa
The growth of websites on the internet through which young people met and planned to commit suicide was becoming a shocking feature of Japanese life when writer and director Kokami wrote Halcyon Days, first staged in Japan in 2004 and now receiving its British premier.
It begins with just such a group meeting in a public park. There is Masa, a young business man who works in product development and promotion and is soon asking one of the others for his rating of a new cola drink. There is Kazumi, the internet pseudonym of a counsellor with an inner voice who calls himself Akio, urging her to kill herself; and then there is Hello Kitty, a gay man who wants to die but die while enjoying himself, who takes his on-line name from the cartoon character cat that has become ubiquitous in Japanese merchandising for its kawai cuteness. Are they going to kill themselves? How are they going to do it? Will they succeed?
With some opening statistics on Japanese suicide delivered by the actress who plays Kazumi we seem to be set up for an investigation into the causes of / reasons for suicide and the role now played by the internet but, despite its underlying serious issues, this turns out to more a zany comedy than a serious drama. Yes, we do discover that Hello Kitty is heavily in debt - maybe he has the Yakuza after him to pay up. Kazumi's Akio (of whom she shows a photograph) may be an ex boy-friend or even someone she was counseling who had killed themselves and Masa turns out to be something of a delusionist. He suddenly has no recollection of even issuing his invitation to joint suicides on the internet and then becomes convinced that he is part of a human shield to counter some sort of military threat and the others are his co-volunteers.
At this stage Masa gets them all involved in rehearsing a children's play about two ogres in the middle of which he is confident they will all get blown up and that becomes the centerpiece of the show. You can read it as an allegory for a variety of things to do with friendship, social dependence, fear, some of which the characters start to explain. It is a very over-extended conceit but very funny at times and it provides a piece of inspired physical direction that really takes off at one point, much more than does the text.
Lone Schacksen's simple stylized background, with fringe theatre's signature moveable boxes as its furniture, is counter to any sense of place and that is probably appropriate to some events that begin to take place in a surreal limbo but Kokami gets vigorously real performances from his cast. Dan Ford's Masa is totally convinced by his own behavior, Abigail Boyd makes Azumi a believable caring social worker fighting the voice within her head and Mark Rawlings makes his raving queen such fun that it really doesn't matter that it is such a cliché camp caricature. Joe Morrow makes an intriguingly ghost-like Akio, inanimate when Kazumi ignores him, violent when she opposes him but sometimes speaking in such a rush he becomes barely comprehensible, though perhaps that is intentional since only Kazumi is supposed to be able to see or hear him.
There are some intentionally elegiac moments in Halcyon Days that don't come off and the complexities that lie behind the plot are barely touched on but the play gains momentum towards the end that overrides its illogicalities.
"Halcyon Days" plays at Riverside Studios until 18th September 2011.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton