Unexpected theatrical themes of the year: East Asian characters played by white actors. I'll be seeing more of this at the Arcola next week but for now it's Riverside Studios where Shoji Kokami, directing his own 2004 play in its UK premiere, has presumably used colour-blind casting to give his story some universality, rather than because there's such a wealth of roles for British actors of Japanese descent that he thought he'd give the white people a chance for once. Whatever the race of the actors though if you associate Japanese culture with being a bit mental then you'll recognise it here since Halcyon Days
(named after a brand of sleeping pill all the characters are taking) is a comedy about group suicide.
Masa (Dan Ford) and "Hello Kitty" (Mark Rawlings) have met on a suicide website and are now meeting up in real life to go through with it together. Also joining them is Kazumi (Abigail Boyd) who appears to be one of them but is in fact trying to stop them: A former school counsellor, she is constantly haunted by visions of Akio (Joe Morrow,) a sixth former she failed to stop killing himself. When Masa turns out to have multiple personalities, one of which believes they're in a war zone, some convoluted logic ends up with the three (or four) of them rehearsing a fable to perform to a local pre-school, with most of the story and the comedy coming here. Though the way of dealing with the subject is undoubtedly a fresh one, in execution the play's often heavy-handed and clunky with metaphor. The production's strengths lie in the casting, with Ford and Morrow particularly good, and while Japanese-American playwright Aya Ogawa's translation includes some of the worst attempts at jokes I've seen outside of My Family
the silliness does create some genuinely funny moments. But there's a lot to take issue with as well. Much of it is to do with the portrayal of "Hello Kitty," a middle-aged gay man whose campness is rather heavy-handedly done by Rawlings. And while I genuinely have no doubt Kokami believed he was writing him sympathetically, he very often descends into the unpleasant stereotype of the "predatory gay," using rehearsals as an excuse to grope Masa, and leering over a photo of the dead schoolboy. I also don't think the writer ever really gets to the point he's trying to make: The play was written as a response to a spate of teenage suicides in Japan, but only one of the characters is a teenager; and since he's already dead, we don't go into his reasons for wanting to die. And with the living characters suffering from quite extreme mental conditions, I felt as if Kokami misses the point of how depression is not
a rare and extreme condition, and a huge amount of people who seem outwardly fine are going to be going through these emotions. Still, at least Halcyon Days
isn't as far off the mark as I Am The Wind
with regards to depression, and it's not actually a bad show, just a very problematic one - interestingly enough bad taste is never one of those problems, the broad comic feel never feels disrespectful to people with suicidal tendencies, it just never really understands them either.Halcyon Days
by Shoji Kokami in a translation by Aya Ogawa is booking until the 18th of September at Riverside Studio 3.