Magical Mystery Tour de Force

A British production of a Japanese work, Shun-kin is a near-perfect triumph

Minette Marrin

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.

Shun-kin is his everything – a viciously demanding mistress, harsh music master, sadistic lover and countless other things. He is her everything as well. When she is mysteriously disfigured, he blinds himself, so that he will never see the ruin of her beauty and she will be certain of that. Finally, they lie buried close together in a neglected cemetery visited by a narrator, with an ugly modern industrial city as a backdrop. But to say that is to reveal little about the play.

It has to do with beauty, cruelty, ritual, hierarchy, dependency, obsession and spirituality, with the extremes of sexuality, sadism, narcissism and luxury – even to the use of nightingale droppings as exfoliants for Shun-kin’s alabaster skin. Shocking though some of these themes are, they are handled with the intense delicacy and heroic restraint that Westerners love in Japanese art. The play deals with the tensions between Japan past and Japan present, between Japan and the West, between the illumination of the light bulb and the shadows full of obscured meanings of the era of candlelight. It touches on the ambiguities of storytelling and the loneliness of the recording studio.

It even deals with moments of high spiritual tranquillity in the traditional Japanese lavatory, though that might be lost on anyone who had not read the programme notes. Ultimately, the production is very beautiful. Complicite has always devised extremely physical theatre and here, drawing heavily on the traditions of Japan, the physical rituals of Japanese life are mesmerising, as is the constant music and occasional singing. With the dark sets, troubling puppets and formal movements, this is the world of an alien but familiar fairy story.

Why are there several narrators? Why are there different versions of the story? Why does Shun-kin herself begin as a masked puppet and then much later become a naked living woman? There are explanations, but they are elusive-allusive. The point is that Shun-kin is not schematic. It has no tricksy literary or theatrical devices that can be interpreted literally. The story is unfolded with so many different layers of suggestion and emotion that it is impossible to enumerate them. Many are expressed only physically or musically.

That is Shun-kin‘s great theatrical strength, and the strength of all great theatre. Although the play is very articulate verbally (despite the austere surtitles), although one can easily spell out in words some of one’s responses and thoughts, and although one can mention in common nouns some of the play’s preoccupations, there is a very great deal more that cannot be, and is not meant to be, articulated.

The production is full of strange resonances reverberating at the edge of one’s consciousness. It seduces the viewer into abandoning the everyday mind’s nagging for clarity and certainty. That may be partly to do with unfamiliarity with Japanese culture. Perhaps novelty explains part of the play’s enchantment. But audiences in Tokyo were enthralled, too, last year.

Shun-kin was created in close collaboration with Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre, which, by Japanese standards, is unusually avant-garde and outward looking. This is perhaps why it was able to collaborate with Complicite, whose theatrical tradition is not popular in Japan. Setagaya is a non-profit organisation funded by the local council. So Setagaya is state-subsidised theatre, as is Complicite, which is substantially funded by the Arts Council. This presents a challenge to all those who, like me, have tended to think that the arts should not be funded by the taxpayer.

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