Shun-kin @ Barbican, London

directed by
Simon McBurney
Continuing the Barbican’s Bite09 season is the second collaboration between Complicite and Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre, performed in Japanese with English surtitles.

Following on from The Elephant Vanishes, their highly successful 2003 staging of three Haruki Murakami short stories, comes Shun-kin, a dramatization of two works by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: the story A Portrait of Shunkin and the essay In Praise of Shadows, both written in 1933.

However, although, as always with Complicite, full of rich visual invention, this show does not have quite the same narrative coherence.

Simon McBurney’s production is a multi-layered, mixed-media account of a disturbingly intense fictional sexual relationship set in nineteenth-century Osaka interspersed with Tanizaki’s nostalgic meditations on how Japan has changed due to Westernization. It is framed by the narrative device of a contemporary radio recording of the story, which gives way to the author’s voice, which in turn changes to an old man called Sasuke recalling many years ago his love for Shunkin, enacted in short fragmented scenes.

They meet at the home of Shunkin’s father, a wealthy pharmacist, for whom Sasuke works as an apprentice. Shunkin is a beautiful blind girl, with a cruelly domineering temper, who is being taught to become an expert player of the shamisen, a stringed instrument with a hauntingly melancholy sound. The slightly older Sasuke falls under her spell, and they become involved in a sado-masochistic relationship of mistress/servant and teacher/student, as he learns from her how to play the shamisen himself.

Their ambivalent intimacy is threatened when one of the pupils Shunkin has humiliated takes his revenge by scalding her with boiling water, disfiguring her face for life. The proud Shunkin will not let anyone see her, so the devoted Sasuke, blinded by love, takes extreme action to ensure he can remain her companion in this pitch-dark, mutual dependency.

Tanizaki’s bold expression of fetishized sexuality, where moments of surprising, even sublime, beauty emerge from a violent submissive/dominant relationship, seems astonishingly modern, full of perverse perceptiveness. The all-embracing, obsessive nature of Shunkin and Sasuke’s love, where even unwanted their children are given up for adoption, is both moving and repellent.

McBurney takes his cue from the word ‘shadows’ in this sombre staging of an emotional territory where most people do not want to look, with low lighting subtly illuminating the murky human sexuality. The show is full of beautiful images, such as gently swaying actors holding sticks suggesting trees blowing in the wind and the silhouettes of flapping birds rising into the sky evoking death. But sometimes there is too much business going on on stage and the structure of the show is over-complicated, so that we become distracted and distanced from the emotional core of the drama.

The ensemble cast, playing multiple roles, serve the work well with concentrated stillness, though they are just one element in the overall mise en scne. Indeed, a puppet is very effectively used to represent Shun-kin as a girl (created by the appropriately named Blind Summit Theatre). The flexible design by Merle Hensel is impressively slick, with the memorable projections of Finn Ross for mesmer and Paul Anderson’s beautiful lighting adding much to the dramatic quality, while the sound effects of Gareth Fry and music of Honjoh Hidetaro and Rumi Matsu play an important part in a story where the aural sense is acute.

Overall, Shun-kin is continually a delight for both eye and ear, but, to borrow a phrase, some things seem to get lost in translation. Whereas Complicite’s last show, the award-winning A Disappearing Number, made advanced mathematics accessible by turning it into visual poetry, this show is more difficult to get into, but the effort is well worthwhile.

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