Trance @ Bush Theatre, London

cast list
Rashan Stone
Stephen Darcy
Meredith MacNeill

directed by
Shoji Kokami
After scoring a hit with a play originally from Norway (the magnificent Elling), for its latest production the Bush Theatre keeps things international, but this time crosses continents to Japan.

Shoji Kokami, the writer and director of Trance, is a popular figure in Japan. In addition to his work in the theatre, he writes books on the dramatic arts and has presented a number of television shows. Trance was first seen in Tokyo in 1993 and since then it has been revived numerous times. This production, however, presented in a translation by Amy Kassai, is the first time that it has been seen in the UK.

Trance is an intense three-hander about the damage that can be wrought by social alienation. 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. He goes to visit a psychiatrist, Reiko, who turns out to be an old school friend with whom he used to have a strong friendship. This apparently presents no barriers to her treating him and she diagnoses what she believes is the onset of schizophrenia.

At the same time Masa also becomes reacquainted by chance with another old school friend, Senzo, who is now working as a drag artist. But their reunion is shortlived because Masa’s blackouts begin to worsen and he becomes gripped by the delusion that he is, in actual fact, the deposed Emperor of Japan.

While Reiko attempts to cure her friend, Senzo tends to Masa, pretending to be one of the Emperor’s court eunuchs so that he can continue to nurse the friend, that as a schoolboy, and to some extent still, he is in love with.

Trance is a curious piece of theatre. It plays Pirandello-esque games with its characters, inviting the audience to question just who is suffering from delusions, the journalist, the drag queen, the psychiatrist or perhaps all three. But it does so in a distinctly heavy-handed fashion. As the reality of who is who becomes increasingly blurred, the play I suspect is meant to become more manic and absurd; but instead these scenes just end up feeling repetitive and slightly annoying.

The cultural gap is part of the problem. The play makes a number of references that I suspect are drained of their impact for an English audience. This is particularly the case in regards to the bizarre cult of which Reiko was once a member it’s difficult to get a handle on what it is she’s admitting to without understanding the greater cultural context. The pacing too feels a little off, with many of the scenes, especially towards the end, forever looping back on themselves. I suspect this approach was meant to underline the fragility of identity and play up the ambiguity of the piece, but in fact I just found it repetitious and irritating.

Trance features some strong acting, particularly from Rashan Stone as Senzo. Though camp in the extreme, in tight feminine clothing with a turquoise headscarf cascading down his back, his portrayal never feels like a caricature.

In addition to some solid performances, the play also, at times, has the exciting, surreal feel of a Haruki Murikami novel, but in the main I suspect a good deal of what the Kokami is trying to say, about identity, about society, has been lost in translation.

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