Theatre Review: Shun-Kin

Posted on: 13 February 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews Japanese writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s latest theatre production Shun-kin.

Devotion, passion and power, in a world where the beauty is unforgiving and love is blinding, is imaginatively conveyed by Complicite in their latest devised work Shun-kin.

Following sell-out performances in Tokyo in February 2008, the production comes to the Barbican Theatre in London as part of Bite 09.

The story, inspired by two works written in 1933 (A Portrait Of Shunkin and In Praise Of Shadows by Japanese writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki), is the true account of Shun-kin a blind shamisen player, composer and daughter of a pharmaceutical merchant in the mid 19th-century and her relationship with her pupil and servant, Sauke, who ended up as her companion and lover.

Shun-kin treats her lover as a slave with a considerable degree of not unwelcome sadistic cruelty, at least until Sasuke proves the depth of his devotion by deliberately blinding himself. This takes place after an assailant disfigures Shunkin.

Their last years are spent in loving intimacy until Shun-kin’s death, which leaves Sasuke with precious memories of their time together.

Like the original texts, Complicite, under the direction of Simon McBurney, employs a mock documentary style using a narrator who pieces together the story from various sources, using guess work, and also quoting from so-called accounts of the period.

Everything in fact is distanced by the dense and complicated narrative technique. What, though, most weakens this production is the stately, slow pace but there are compensations, most notably in Complicite’s trademark visual flair, in particular the dazzling final scene.

Furthermore McBurney extracts commendable performances from his Japanese cast (the play is performed in Japanese with English subtitles) who manage to illuminate this strange but haunting drama.

This then is a play which moves effortlessly between the neon glow of Japan and the vanished world of the Meiji era, while discovering moments of light in a world of darkness and in so doing shows just how close beauty and violence can really be.

By Laurence Green

Show Details

Where: Barbican Theatre, London

When: Plays until 21st February

Box Office: 0845 120 7511

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