Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Shun-kin, Barbican Centre

Review: Shun-kin, Barbican Centre

Published on Culture Wars, 11.02.2009

There are two ways of looking at Complicité’s second collaboration with Japan’s Setagaya Public Theatre. One is as a straightforwardly textbook production from a company famed for their swirling sense of invention; the other, as a piece of storytelling with a calm beauty and visual purity. While Shun-kin may not reach the dizzying, dazzling heights of Complicité’s repertoire, it contains more than enough to spark both synapses and senses.

Springing from two texts by Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Shun-kin tells the story of the titular blind musician and her wholly submissive life partner Sasuke. As her servant from an early age, the ever-compliant Sasuke goes from plaything to manipulated instrument as her sado-masochistic beatings increase in frequency and ferocity. It is only once he has blinded himself in old age that the two sit side by side comforted by equality and Shun-kin can express gratitude for his decades of servitude.

As she matures from spoilt, obnoxious child to fearful dominatrix, Shun-kin morphs from puppet into an awkward humanoid, masked, robotic and still operated by puppeteers. There is a huge ambiguity about the shedding of her object status. It seems at once sympathetic of her disability, as if she is forced into a life trapped by the control of others, and damning of her own inability to empathize, as she rains down fierce blows upon Sasuke. Blind Summit, recently responsible for the magic of War Horse, once again stretch the possibilities of puppetry as the doll-like Shun-kin undergoes sexual encounters, pregnancy and violence.

If certain tricks, such as paper birds and human trees, seem as familiar as the picturesque vision of a pre-Western Japan, they don’t yet feel totally exhausted. However, the convention-busting discovery that first brought such elements into Complicité’s work seems absent here, as does the infectious sense of human movement – its hypnotic pulse and flow – that can have you swaying in your seat. Just like the blind Sasuke’s world, Shun-kin seems a hazy memory of some strange hallucination.

The primary story is told from three different sources: by the author himself, by the sage-like seventy-five year-old Sasuke kneeling in its midst throughout and by a recording artist narrating behind a desk-light. While Complicité don’t attain the multiplicity of, say, A Disappearing Number’s various strands, it does allow for secondary layers to unfold around the action. They seem to ask where fiction exists: in the mind of its creator, its audience or in and of itself? And moreover, when history becomes memory and resides in the same place, does it too become a fiction?

What a shame that, in seeking fiction’s source, Complicité have lost sight of its scope.

Photograph: Complicite

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