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The Bush Theatre seems to be offering a little crash course in eccentric comedies about madness from around the world. The last show at this address was an unexpected hit: the cult Norwegian comedy Elling about an oddball friendship, about sanity and reality. Now comes Trance, a cult Japanese comedy about an oddball friendship, about sanity and reality. Only this time, I am afraid, they haven’t struck gold.
Shoji Kokami’s play has been a huge success in Japan since its premiere in 1993 and this is its first outing in English (wittily translated by Amy Kassai). It is quirky, engaging, and plays with the conventions of theatre, rather as Pirandello did, to raise questions about identity, perception and social alienation. The trouble is that, as it wears on, the dilemmas it creates seem increasingly artificial so that the whole thing becomes an intellectual exercise. An amusing exercise, granted, but given that the play deals in the sort of crises of identity that matter, one craves a little less shadow boxing.
The piece revolves around the chance reunion of three school friends, Masa, Reiko and Sanzo. Sanzo has become a drag artist, Reiko a psychiatrist, and Masa a writer who is developing schizophrenic delusions that he is the emperor of Japan. Masa winds up in hospital, being treated by Reiko and tended to by Sanzo. As he slips back and forth between his two identities, the confused feelings that the three pupils had for one another resurface and, with them, confessions about their loss of direction.
We ought to care for them a great deal by now, and the warm, engaging performances from Stephen Darcy, Meredith MacNeill and Rashan Stone go a long way towards persuading us to do so. Stone in particular gives a gorgeous performance as Sanzo. But then the play shifts gear into smart speculation. Which of the three is really the patient? Are they all delusional? And so on. It’s playfully done, but it turns the piece into a debate, losing the emotional moorings that would make it moving, rather than amusing.
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