Simon McBurney and Complicite, based on the writings of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki
Barbican Theatre

Production photo

Shun-kin is a haunting tale of love, as unconventional to Western eyes and ears in the telling as the mythical quality of the underlying story.

Simon McBurney and Complicite have attempted to give the two-hour performance a feel that enhances a stage version of two works written by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki in 1933 A Portrait of Shunkin and In Praise of Shadows, both set in 19th Century Japan.

Until the final moments, the Barbican's substantial stage space is barely lit, such that you have to peer to see much of what is on show.

The Setagaya Public Theatre from Tokyo provide nine performers, who mix physical theatre with film in an evening of great beauty, eroticism and some truly shocking moments.

Shun-kin hails from the highest echelons of society but has her life blighted by the loss of her sight when she is only ten. Soon afterwards, her household takes on a servant Sasuke, only a few years older than herself.

For the next half century, the determined girl/woman pursues a career as a musician/teacher getting her way in everything. Even as a girl, Shun-kin is headstrong, insisting that Sasuke become her eyes and, soon enough, the father of a child that is cast away forever, the first of several.

The mismatched pair move on in a relationship that is described by one of several narrators as sadistic but not "S & M", although many viewers might dispute the latter part of that judgement.

The heroine has a penchant for beating those whom she loves and doing worse to her many enemies. This eventually leads to comeuppance but not before she has enjoyed a happy life with Sasuke, who makes an extraordinary sacrifice to prove his love for the cruellest of mistresses.

The plot may be simple but the delivery is innovative. Both leads are played by a succession of actors from the ensemble, new ones coming in as the characters age.

In the case of Shun-kin, we start out with a life-size, articulated puppet, move on to a human puppet, before finally arriving at a 100% woman for the final scenes. The look is then enhanced by music played live on stage on a stringed instrument called a shamisen.

This strange and often eerie love story builds very subtly in Simon McBurney's adaptation, action taking second place to artistic effect, thus giving viewers plenty of time to enjoy his visual tricks. The evening circles back to where it started and a point when the symbolic lark ascends to signal impending closure to a really satisfying couple of hours.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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