Theatre503, London – until 27 October 2018
Guest reviewer: Govind Kharbanda
We meet Tomomi (Tomoko Kumara) – wonderfully naïve, fresh-faced and fallible as she arrives in 1940s New York, clutching her pocket radio and suitcase. Set initially in the period before the Hiroshima bombing, Tomomi is containing an inner struggle – that of being wrenched away her homeland, of being separated from her parents (who are being sent to internment camp), of arriving in a country that is hostile to the Japanese, and of being tied to the conventions of an unexpected married life and unable to explore her sexuality. Her stoic endurance – or ‘gaman’ – is what the play strives to portray. Over the course of 30 scenes in 90 minutes decked with imagery and metaphors, Dipuka Guha’s intricate script takes us through Tomomi’s journey through the decades.
Kumara’s portrayal of the young Tomomi – impressionable and slightly neurotic – is delightful as she copes with the challenges of learning English pronunciation, occasionally lapsing into Japanese, and strikes up an unlikely camaraderie with a fishmonger (Alice Dillon).
With delusions of becoming an actress, she finds herself taking on work as a cleaner in a cinema, encountering casual racism. There are some touching light-hearted moments when together, viewing cherry blossoms, Tomomi innocently explains in her broken English that it is ‘all sudden and pink, like a heart attack!’
Later, Kumara plays a high-school girl working in a cafe, serving cafe and chewing gum, whilst You-ri Yamanaka takes over as the older Tomomi – now more outwardly confident and strong-minded, but isolated and prone to mood swings (which she attributes to ‘sunlight’). In a sense, she is living in a self-imposed exile and argues with her doctor (or later, her accountant) both of whom are frustrated yet fascinated by her. Inevitably, they cross professional boundaries, such as through seeking relationships with her (“I’ll take that as a yes”) or coercing her to sell her property and move to another state.
That she eventually does, and in her third relationship with a fisherman (Philip Desmeules), we find her running a koi carp farm, in a successful business, though her inner struggles become all the more intense. All credit to Philip who has previously appeared in various supporting roles as cinema supervisor, her accountant, and even Tom Hanks in a dreamlike enactment of a scene from You’ve Got Mail.
Fast forward to the end of her life, where Tomomi is on a ventilator, under psychiatric care, with clear symptoms of mental disorder. Her last encounter with the fishmonger (Alice Dillon) – now a grandmother – is especially poignant: “I asked for the dragon, and they brought me here.”
Guha’s original script is empathetic and intelligently written, flitting between decades and showing snapshots of Tomomi’s relationships – sometimes the start, or the middle, or the end. It chimes with broader political issues today around immigration, and stories of families being torn apart.
Simeon Miller’s use of projection is effective and appropriate to the imagery and metaphors that permeate the script, not only in bringing the silent movies back to life, but together with the voiceovers, in helping to advance the narrative flow. Greatly appreciated by the full house in attendance, and enhanced by the Q&A with cast that followed.
The Art of Gaman runs until 27 October