Wednesday, 4 February 2009


Rushed back from Birmingham and straight to the press night for Complicite's new show Shun-Kin at the Barbican. A Japanese cast directed by Simon McBurney.

The piece, adapted form the writings of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, tells the story of the fifty year sadomasochistic relationship between the cruel, blind Shunkin, a virtuoso of the stringed Japanese shamisen, and her passionate pupil, the devoted Sasuke.

When the temperamental Shunkin's face is disfigured in a brutal attack, Sasuke pierces his own eyes out with a needle, so that she will not have to be seen by him. Blind loyalty.

At its heart the play explores the shades of unconditional love that cannot be described, but only sensed. This metaphor of revelation through darkness is used as to contrast a Japanese emphasis on the importance of a shadow world with the connection in Western cultures between light and truth. The suggestion is that beauty, in its purest form, is more visceral provocation than an accurate visual representation of reality.

There is a fascination and respect for the guru here, an admiration for the devotion of servitude, which, beyond the obvious attraction of cruelty, I'm always slightly wary of. The real discordant clash, however, comes in aesthetic terms. The mesmeric, stripped, deliberate efficiency of Kabuki and Noh theatre, both alluded to in the production, smacks headlong into the rough, messy, dressing up box of ideas that has informed the companies process since the early eighties. At times this overflow of playful ideas undermines the simple clarity of philosophical reflection. Can a Western aesthetic escape the desire for work to be looked at rather than absorbed through the skin? Or is our theatre process inevitably slightly indulgent, vain and precocious? The deliberate irony for this show is that even in shadows it still shouts 'Look at me! Look at me!' I couldn't help thinking that the same material in Peter Brook's hands would have been given essence.

I often think that McBurney's shows reflect his current psychological pre-occupations - (why wouldn't they) - and, if this is so, he's in edgy mood, possibly close to crisis. The visual fireworks and perfectly timed jokes of an earlier body of work may be gone but in his ingenious over reach and subsequent inability to tie down the various component parts of the show, the piece is vintage, brave Complicite.

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