October 06, 2017

OzAsia – The Dark Inn

The Dark Inn
Written and directed by Kuro Tanino
Niwa Gekidan Penino
Her Majesty’s, Adelaide

The Hokuriko region in North Western Honshu in Japan is commonly known as Hell Valley. This refers to the extensive volcanic activity roiling below the earth’s surface and creating the numerous hot springs for which the region is famous. It is here, as in many parts of the country, that Japanese onsens, or health spas can be found, the restorative springs enclosed in bath houses and inns awaiting the seasonal travellers like shrines of comfort and renewal.

Playwright and psychiatrist, Kuro Tanino has used the literal and metaphoric implications of these Jigoku springs, underground collisions of fire and water, to create a work that is both intriguing and disturbing. The Dark Inn is part Gothic mystery, part soul journey and completely engaging.

Two visitors, an elderly dwarf father, Momofuku Kurata, and his son, Ichiro arrive at an inn with no name. They wait in the reception area but there is no reception. They check their letter of introduction, re-reading it aloud. The father and son are puppet masters, they have been invited to perform. Eventually an elderly woman, Takiko, appears but she is unhelpful. Their questions, as if in a scene from Beckett, are treated with incomprehension and indifference.

Gradually, through the evening and then throughout a long restless night, other inn dwellers emerge : Matsuo, a young blind man, Fumie and Iku, two resting geishas, drinking and making raucous music strumming their three-stringed shamisens, and Sansuke, the mute, sexually tormented bath attendant.

The elaborately detailed set, designed by Tanino and Michiko Inada, is a large box with a traditional red curtain which opens to reveal a tetrahedron structure – comprising four roughly triangular rooms. There is the inn reception, the puppeteers’ bedroom, with a mezzanine, the hot spa surrounded by a rockery, Sansuke’s quarters, and, glimpsed through a window, a central courtyard featuring a persimmon tree. Exquisitely lit by Masayuke Abe and Kosuke Ashidano, the stage is filmic in detail.

Tanino has created a dream play which has a mindful stillness about it. The dialogue has a Chekhovian weariness but also absurdity – as when Momofuku asks the blind Matsuo why he is reading a book. To keep my mind’s eye open is the reply. But what, Momofuku insists, do you want to see ? Matsuo shrugs, the soul I guess.

The diminutive father (memorably played by Mame Yamada) is a strange, fiercely elfin figure, straight from a troll folktale, or a scene from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. When he sits and tosses back his waist- length hair the effect is other-worldly. Sochichi Murakami, as his son Ichigo, dressed in a Uniqlo puffer jacket, has an urban, contemporary look about him, but as events unfold – and in his casual cruelty to Hayato Mori’s neurotic Matsuo – his dark complexities become apparent.

As the revolve turns from one domain to another, the characters disclose themselves, unfurling their regrets, desires and fears. Takiko reveals her envy of the geishas, Iku her yearning for a child. Sansuke smears his face against the window glass in a silent scream. As part of this ritual abnegation, each of the characters in turn ceremonially remove their clothes and step into the steaming bath. The scenes are hypnotic in their simple intimacy and the sound design (by Koji Sato and Yoshihiro Nakamura) captures the sounds of the trickling water, the cicadas and movement elsewhere in the inn with extraordinary precision.

And, because you can’t have a puppet show without Punch, the unpacking of the marionette, to the slow bowing of the traditional kokyu music, is an astonishment we are not prepared for. The ugly, brutish energy of the puppet with its bulging phallus dismays some of the characters and arouses others.

The performance is a fertility ritual and a harbinger of spring. It is also perhaps a rude awakening to the Ignorance Inn. Ignorance meaning the self-deception which, in Buddhist teaching, is the cause of dukka : the perpetual dissatisfaction and suffering which traps individuals in the karmic cycle called samsara.

The Dark Inn is remarkable in its ambition and in Tanino’s bold use of both Eastern and Western archetypes. It is not an esoteric play, despite being located in specific philosophical and psychological teachings. Instead, its extraordinary visual appeal and the mischievous twists in the narrative embody its elusive meanings and make them accessible and provocative.

The spoken narrative concludes as it would a fable. The return of spring, the arrival of a newborn, and the beginning of the next, if perhaps futile cycle, means that the inn is not just a heartbreak hotel. It is a place where the sorrows of the unconscious can bubble up and be soothed.

Daily Review, 6 October, 2017.

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