Complicite (London) and Setagaya Public Theatre (Tokyo) Esplanade Theatre
Bathed in darkness, with much of its action illuminated only by a shaft or plane of light, Shun-kin pivots around its mesmerising title character, and yet is so much more than that.
This richly textured production, an East-West collaboration between two renowned theatre companies, is a fitting opener to the Three Titans season of works by legendary directors of the stage, presented by the Singapore Repertory Theatre and the Esplanade.
The titan in this case is Briton Simon McBurney, Complicite's artistic director, known for putting his own iconoclastic stamp on classic and often difficult source material.
The texts he has researched and recreated through movement-based improvisations with actors run the gamut from Shakespeare's problem play Measure For Measure (first staged by Complicite in 2004) to contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami's quirky short story collection The Elephant Vanishes. The latter was the subject of McBurney's previous, 2003 collaboration with Japan's Setagaya Public Theatre.
Shun-kin (2008) is based on a 1933 short story by Japanese modern master Junichiro Tanizaki and is staged in Japanese with English surtitles. Like the earlier adaptation of The Elephant Vanishes, it has won theatre awards in Japan and toured widely to acclaim.
Working with all-Japanese casts in both productions, McBurney has described himself as an outsider who does not speak the language, desperately trying to get a handle on Japanese society. What kick-started his fascination with the culture was an essay by Tanizaki, rhapsodising Japanese notions of beauty and how these revolve around darkness and shadows, rather than light.
Quotes from this 1933 essay, In Praise Of Shadows, frame the production of Shun-kin. At its kernel is the arresting tale of a blind, beautiful shamisen musician and her loyal manservant-cumstudent. She never publicly acknowledges their relationship, while he derives an erotic charge from being literally slapped around by her.
The director is not content to serve the story up straight, but introduces a few narrative voices. He even weaves an original sub-plot out of a contemporary female professional who takes up a gig narrating the Tanizaki story over the radio.