After the premiere of “Mercury Fur” at Theatre Tram in Tokyo’s lively Sangenjaya district this month, Issey Takahashi, who stars in that dystopian 2005 play by Philip Ridley, declared: “I think this is a very dark prophecy, but as I was acting my character Elliot today, I also felt it’s a story of hope — or perhaps I should say that, as actors, we should make it a hopeful story.”
Nevertheless, if you were just to read this fifth adult play by the 50-year-old English multimedia artist, author, film director and visual artist who also writes plays for children, you might well be baffled by Takahashi’s sentiment.
In fact, Ridley’s regular publisher actually refused to handle this work, which caused widespread outrage and heated debate over its graphic portrayals of child sex abuse in a post-apocalyptic version of the East End of London, where Ridley has lived his whole life.
Here, in a ravaged landscape ruled by gangs, Elliot and his only living relative, his simple-minded younger brother Darren (Koji Seto), work for a hood named Spinx (Shin Koyanagi), primarily by dealing in super-addictive hallucinogenic butterflies that take away users’ memories.
But Spinx also organizes sex parties for VIP perverts to fulfill their most debased fantasies. After a boy (Gen Ogawa) who the brothers lined up to be used at one of these parties dies, Elliot tries to have the event postponed but Spinx refuses — saying there’s no time as London could be bombed at any moment.
So the brothers have to find a new boy to be tortured by the VIP (Kazuaki Hankai) in the trashed empty apartment where the parties are held — which they do, though to give away any more than Takahashi did after the first night would be unfair.
Nonetheless, with this very English hoodie-boys play being so engorged with aggression, violence, shocking words and bloody scenes, one wondered how it would go down in Japan, where public values of peace and harmony are paramount and harmless comedy is the staple entertainment fare.
Well, after the first night, the director, Akira Shirai, said: “It’s the first time in my career that I’ve shaken with excitement at the outcome of my work.”
And as contentious as the subject matter may be, his feeling was clearly echoed by the audience. When I was there, loud applause went on and on as they acclaimed the whole marvelous cast, but especially Takahashi, whose performance was so taut and edgy,Seto, who presented such a perplexing Darren — and Kouki Mizuta in the key role of Naz, a young neighbor of the brothers.
Shirai surely deserved to take several bows as well, not least for having visualized that wrecked apartment (designed by Rumi Matsui) and jutting it up to the cozy Theatre Tram’s front row to ensure the play’s spine-chilling scenes unfold right in people’s faces — as well as on the auditorium’s dimly lit steps.
Yet the really clever thing is the way Ridley pushes the envelope of that essential ability of theater to portray reality to audiences through its fictions — here by using the power of exaggeration to propel that leap. Hence it’s impossible to watch this drama without being swallowed up by it, as Ridley’s genius pushes your imagination into realms that shock you as no-one else could do so more than you yourself.
Clearly, as ridiculous as it may seem that London could suddenly be flattened without warning, or a boy’s head could be chopped off to satisfy someone’s lust, or anyone would set up a friend to be tortured, all that’s there in this play, as it is in the world — making it horribly easy to imagine Syrian, Palestinian or Iraqi people’s faces in the final scene with its explosions and flashes outside the apartment’s windows.
Yet despite this, Takahashi talked about there being hope in even this dark prophecy — while in a Guardian interview, Ridley addressed that perhaps shocking idea, saying: “The things that happen in ‘Mercury Fur’ are not gratuitous. … The people may do terrible things, but everything they do is out of love, in an attempt to keep each other safe. … What lengths would you go to in order to save the people you love?”
“Mercury Fur” runs till Feb. 22 at Theatre Tram, in Sangenjaya, Tokyo. It then tours Feb. 28 to Nishinomiya in Hyogo Prefecture and March 8 to Fukuoka City in Kyushu. For further details, call 03- 5432-1515 or visit setagaya-pt.jp.