It would be an understatement to say that Toshiki Okada’s Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich is hard-going. This is a punishingly sluggish and maddeningly drawn-out piece of endurance art if ever there was one. In so far as there is a narrative to speak of, Super Premium concerns the daily activities of a Japanese convenience store (known as the ‘Smile Factory’) in which a wearisome workforce of twenty-somethings banter, squabble and laze about in a meandering display of woozy physical movement and lengthy, prosaic exchanges. Honestly, in its capacity to replicate the corrosive ennui of working in retail, Super Premium… proves an unmitigated success.
And therein lies the difficulty. You see, whilst Super Premium is undeniably lacking in incident and colour, you can’t really fault it for those reasons alone. Okada and his cast do such a spot-on job of conveying the utter hopelessness of this type of job, world and state of being – in so far as we feel hopeless for them – that all of the criteria by which one could rubbish it become core elements of its construction. I’m usually contemptuous of the notion that an ‘absence of enjoyment’ should be viewed as a mark of artistic accomplishment, but in the case of Super Premium the grinding monotony of Okada’s strip-lit purgatory seems to me an intentional and controlled provocation. Whether or not it’s any fun to watch is another question altogether.
‘Smile Factory’ stands as a sort of capitalist-utopia in miniature: a gleaming microcosm for an acquisitive, yet spiritually hollowed-out consumerist society. Inside this luminous land of plenty, everything and nothing is possible; countless transactional needs are fulfilled with rigid expediency, whilst the mechanical grins of its haunted staff greet the customers with enforced cordiality. Takuya Aoki’s set design is simple enough, succinctly conveying its bland uniformity: two gauze-curtains hang down showing images of items stacked upon shelves, and the aisles are delineated by three black rectangles marked out on the stage floor. The convenience store setting is rendered in a one-dimensional quality that imbues everything with a flat and washed-out feel. Meanwhile, the addition of Bach provides an unlikely yet fitting soundtrack for the continuous supermarket ‘muzak’ that underscores the piece.
The performance style takes quite a bit of getting used to. Firstly, the cast deliver Okada’s dense and rather information-heavy dialogue in a casual, almost conversational register that feels calculatedly un-dramatic. This is married to the continuous stream of wavy physical motions that, through a series of vaguely ritualised gestures, enact the ceaseless activity of their work. There is an artless artfulness to this type of choreography, which has all the virtue of not looking like its really been choreographed at all. These movements, embodying the idleness and unthinking labour of the workers, creates a strangely hypnotic effect on the viewer. On top of all this, it’s worth pointing out that much of Okada’s text, with its incorporation of Japanese colloquialisms and urban-slang, gets run through the mill in the translation. While the surtitles do a decent enough job of keeping up with the on-stage action, you do wonder how much of the text, particularly those aspects resonant within Okada’s own cultural milieu, has been ironed-out.
Super Premium remains a bewildering and at times exasperating experience, though perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing. At any rate, your enjoyment of it will depend on how much patience you have for Okada’s peculiar blend of Marxist theory and theatrical abstraction. This is concept theatre with an emphasis firmly on the conceptual.
Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich played at artsdepot as part of LIFT Festival. For more information, visit the LIFT 2014 website.