With all the highly developed talents and traditions that come together in British theatre, it is still very rare to find a production which is truly, bewitchingly theatrical. This is almost always because the play - the text - is not good enough to serve the uses of enchantment, even when its production is. However, Complicite's Shun-kin, as so often with Simon McBurney's productions, has achieved a bewitchingly theatrical, magical, unforgettable piece of true theatre-everything came together in near-perfection.
Shun-kin is entirely in Japanese, with Japanese actors and English surtitles. It lasts an interval-less 110 minutes and features a couple of puppets and a lot of plangent Japanese shamisen music. It appeared at the Barbican, which, however good inside, is a difficult and unwelcoming place to which to travel, so there was plenty to prejudice a jaded theatregoer. Yet it was one of the best things I have seen. It ran only for the first three weeks of February, but with luck it will be revived in the near future, and should not be missed by anyone interested in theatre.
It seems a pity to try to describe the play very closely. Its strangeness and shadowy uncertainty are an important part of it. However, unless it does have a rerun soon, that experience may not be available for some time, and the production did offer some interesting insights into what makes really theatrical theatre.
Shun-kin is based on two works published in 1933 by the Japanese writer Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, A Portrait of Shunkin and In Praise of Shadows. In McBurney's play, the story of an exceptionally beautiful and musical young girl, Shun-kin, from an affluent 19th-century Osakan merchant family, is gradually developed: as a child, she becomes blind and depends on a poor apprentice boy, Sasuke, as her guide and slave-like servant. He later becomes her shamisen pupil as well. Despite her frailty, he grows increasingly dependent on her and they spend the rest of their lives together in a strange and tormented symbiosis.