OzAsia artistic director Joseph Mitchell has described the play as having a “Lynchian” quality, and it certainly shares the darkly surreal feeling of the screen works of American director David Lynch. The Dark Inn, however, is a uniquely Japanese story.
Playwright and director Kuro Tanino draws us in with the dreamlike opening scene, where it is immediately clear something is off-kilter.
Two Tokyo puppeteers (a father and son) arrive at the reception of the old inn, where they have been booked to perform a show, but find there is no receptionist – in fact, it turns out, the inn has no owner or staff other than a sansuke whose role is to tend to the spa and those using it.
The sansuke (who doesn’t speak) and the inn’s few guests – an elderly woman, a blind man and two geishas – all profess to know nothing about the booking and seem convinced there must be some mistake.
They are also bemused by the strangers’ appearance: the tall, lanky son and his dwarf father (played by actor Mame Yamada, cited by the writer-director as one of the inspirations for the work).
Kuro decided to create The Dark Inn after staying at a small onsen (hot spring) in Nagano, describing it as a place where “people came to cure their sickness” but which was facing rapid changes due to the construction of a new Shinkansen (bullet train) that would travel between the cities of Tokyo and Toyama.
The inn in this play faces a similar encroachment, and its guests are concerned how the end of their isolation will affect their lives. But the more immediate disruption is caused by the new arrivals.
Each of the characters have anxieties, regrets and secret desires that gradually emerge, with seemingly long-dormant emotions seeping to the surface and then erupting following an impromptu – and disconcerting – performance by the puppeteers.
A former psychiatrist, Kuro delves into the deep recesses of the mind and also seeks to convey some of the ideas of Buddhism – especially “Avidya”, which he says means “no light” (no knowledge, or knowledge being lost).
The Dark Inn is accompanied by surtitles, with narration that helps to explain the story and is often sweetly poetic in its descriptions.
A special highlight of the production is its revolving, two-level set, designed by Kuro Tanino and Michiko Inada. It takes us from the inn’s reception area, to the bedrooms, the bath-house entrance, and the steaming onsen, where the guests disrobe to enjoy the supposedly healing waters. Windows offer glimpses of the outside world – falling snowflakes and ripe persimmons hanging from branches.
The detail is incredible – and gorgeous – with the pace of the performance, the overlapping scenes and the intimacy of the characters’ interactions leaving viewers feeling almost like voyeurs watching something real unfold.
At two hours and 10 minutes with no intermission, The Dark Inn is possibly a little too long. Audience members will likely feel lost at times, with the play’s eccentricities inevitably amplified for those unfamiliar with Japanese culture and language. But being pushed out of your comfort zone is not necessarily a bad thing.
I suggest simply surrendering to its spell.
The final performance of The Dark Inn is tonight at Her Majesty’s Theatre. See more OzAsia festival interviews and reviews here. Show contains nudity.
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