“Straddle me like a horse and squeeze”
Written in 2004 in response to a spate of teenage suicides in Japan, incidents connected to a rise in websites set up to share techniques and enable people to come together in group suicides, Shoji Kokami’s Halcyon Days is now receiving its English-language premiere at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith after being well received in his native Japan. Treading a fine line between dark yet broad comedy and bleak ruminative tragedy, Kokami’s play follows four people who encounter each other on a such a suicide website and decide to meet up to go through with the deed.
But things aren’t quite as simple as they seem. One of the four is actually a ghost; not everyone is quite as keen on dying as the others and in the act of coming together, the interactions between this group as they push and pull their way towards death, via rehearsing a Japanese fairytale, reveals some of the complex emotions and motivations behind the suicidal tendencies, which play out for all of them in unexpected ways.
They all have their own reasons for wanting to end their lives and Kokami probes gently into these, never sensationalising. The mental anguish of haunted businessman Masa, played with an unnerving intensity by an excellent Dan Ford; the overcompensating campery of fellow entrepreneur Hello Kitty, an effusive turn from Mark Rawlings and Abigail Boyd’s brittle counsellor Kazumi haunted by the teenaged spirit of Akio, a charismatic performance from Joe Morrow. All are hiding behind their usernames from the website and behind their various fears, worries and problems that have led them to such desperation which are teased out slowly in amongst the main focus of the comic aspects of planning the logistics of a group suicide (honestly) and the bizarre avenues it then leads them down.
Aya Ogawa’s English translation is directed by Kokami himself with a slightly heavy-handed touch, something reflected in the writing too, that might have been better served by a director with an outside perspective. The use of humour to undercut the melancholy at the heart of Halcyon Days is a brave choice, the toilet gags and unreconstructed portrayal of gay men belongs to a 70s sitcom but the lack of pretension has a great warmth to it as well, backed by the energetic performances that come close to winning you over and an effective lighting design from Azusa Ono which facilitates the shifts in tone.
Likewise the writing lacks a certain subtlety: the motif of the moonshine is overexplained, the significance of the fairytale overstated – Kokami could afford to trust that his audience would get there without having the message rammed down our throats. Overall though, the cumulative effect is one of a respectful warmth, moving away from its opening rationale to something more widely recognisable and human, looking at not just why some people want to die but also why they want to live.
A final note: the production is also serving as a charity event for the recent Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (as it has now been officially renamed) with part of the proceeds going to grassroot organisations in Japan. There’s a collection too at the end of each performance, although it would probably be more effective if an actor took a moment at the curtain call to make an appeal: please give generously if you can.