Monday 8 November 2010

What strange and fascinating creatures

Shun-kin, Barbican, London

A Complicite production based on the writings of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

The final image in Complicite’s Shun-kin is of the whole ensemble walking beneath a slowly descending, dark and rusty wall, bright light streaming through from the other side. It is a vivid picture and would make a damn good production shot. Yet, it doesn’t really satisfy as a closing statement. This is because, unlike the vast majority of Complicite’s shows, Shun-kin isn’t a completely coherent or cohesive show. Though the framework suggests the play is about different generations and their debt to each other, the drama of the play lies in Shunkin’s extraordinary relationship with her uniquely loyal servant, Sasuke. The drama and the fabric of the play feel slightly out of synch. So, despite a compelling central relationship and some astonishing moments of theatre, Shun-kin doesn’t gel in the usual, sublime Complicite fashion.

The show is based on the writings of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki – much loved in his birth country, Japan, but little known here. Perhaps the fact Shun-kin began as a novel is why the attention of Complicite’s piece, directed by Simon McBurney, occasionally feels skewed. The relationship between Shun-kin and Sasuke is a dramatically compelling one, which makes it hard to concentrate on the thematic ideas that simmer in the background of Complicite’s show. In the case of Tanizaki’s novel, no doubt his themes about Japan’s complicated and shifting national identity were weaved cleverly into the narrative, but Complicite’s narrative and drama sometimes combine awkwardly.

Where Complicite’s theatre making really comes into its own – and where the company fully expresses its ideas through its theatrical craft - is in the exploration of Shunk-kin and Sasuke’s relationship, played out against 1930s Japan. Shunkin, daughter of wealthy parents and spoilt rotten ever since she became blind, is depicted by a puppet. When Shunkin is young, two puppeteers control her light and fragile form. Yet the actress, Eri Fukatsu, who voices Shun-kin (and also controls her ‘head’ and ‘left arm’) is loudly miked up, which lends this disabled and precocious young girl a striking stage presence. Shun-kin exceptional stature on stage emphasizes the power she held over those around her, whilst also suggesting the subjectivity of story-telling. Shunkin’s extraordinary presence, despite her physical vulnerability, reminds us we are seeing her through Sasuke’s eyes and that she was always a larger-than-life figure in his devoted and impressionable mind.

As Shun-kin grows up, the puppet develops too. When Shunkin becomes a young woman, the small puppet is raised on stilts, becoming impossibly tall and lending Shun-kin an emphatically haughty demeanor. When she first has sex with Sasuke, the kimono is removed from the puppet’s form to reveal floating, separate limbs. Her visual identity keeps shifting as events effect and change her. When Shun-kin screams at Sasuke in a jealous rage, the puppet is left aside and the puppeteer takes over. And finally, following this rare moments of vulnerability, the puppeteer herself takes on the role and Sasuke, for the first time, gets to see the real Shun-kin.

The shifting puppetry used to represent Shunkin forms a clever and complete visual narrative, reflecting the careful precision that lies behind most theatrical tics in a Complicite production. This deep and sustained level of thought also shines through at certain pivotal moments in the show.  Early on, we see Sasuke enter Shun-kin’s house and discover women for the first time. The narrative (all subtitled, as the script is in Japanese) says of Sasuke: ‘What strange and fascinating creatures they must have seemed to Sasuke.’ Every last inch of the stage ripples into life: the profile of a lady appears behind an opaque white screen, giggling girls flutter across the stage, images of beautiful ladies are projected, haphazardly, against the back wall. The whole theatre throbs with the discovery of female attraction.

Similarly alive and overwhelming moments flutter throughout the show, but it still seems something is missing. It also feels like certain elements might’ve been removed altogether. Complicite is understandably obsessed with the nature of story-telling, and frequently explore this idea in the backdrop of their plays, but some of their thematic concerns are obtrusive here. At a burning point in Shun-kin and Sasuke’s relationship, just after the two have had sex, we cut back to the modern-day narrator, who is also exploring this story. They are funny, self-referential scenes but the tongue-and-cheek nature of these knowing scenes punctures the atmosphere. Perhaps this puncturing was on purpose – but it only made me long to return to the cruelly captivating story of Shun-Kin and her master servant. 

Till 13 November 2010


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