Japanese theatrical blockbuster coming to Esplanade

SINGAPORE - IN 1933, one of Japan's most celebrated writers Jun'ichiro Tanizaki published two works. The first was A Portrait Of Shunkin, which tells the story of a blind music teacher and her sadomasochistic romance with her student.

The other was In Praise Of Shadows, an essay celebrating traditional Japanese aesthetics. Here, Tanizaki posits that Japanese culture favours the subtle, the subdued and the shadowy over the obvious and ostentatious.

His essay was, in effect, a criticism of what he perceived as the "hard, gem-like flame" of Westernisation gradually enveloping Japan and extinguishing its centuries-old aesthetics.

The two works have reverberated through the generations, especially the latter work. And in the 1990s, when renowned English theatre director Simon McBurney took an interest in Tanizaki's writings, he began conceiving the idea of turning Shun-kin into a play with shadows and puppetry.

And though it took several years to transfer it from page to stage, the play Shun-kin is set to open at the Esplanade next month after having toured cities such as New York and Tokyo to acclaim. Time Out New York calls it a "sublime work... (with) an aching, sensual restraint - even, at the end, in ourselves as we try to hold back tears".

The story of blind musician Shun-kin and her devoted student, who endures self-mutilation in his love for her, is told through live action and bunraku puppetry. Perhaps most intriguingly, the central character, Shun-kin, is initially played by a puppet while the other characters are played by humans.

Shun-kin also marks the first blockbuster production in the Three Titans series jointly presented by the Esplanade and the Singapore Repertory Theatre, celebrating the finest in international theatre. The other two blockbusters are Peter Brook's The Suit and Ninagawa's Musashi.

Shun-kin's writer-director McBurney - who also acts in films and television - is currently in the south of France where he is appearing alongside Colin Firth and Emma Stone in a yet-to-be-titled Woody Allen film. He spoke to The Business Times on the phone.

BT: When did you become fascinated with Tanizaki?

McBurney: Even before going to Japan, I was very interested in several Japanese writers including Mishima, Kawabata, Murakami and, of course, Tanizaki. But when I read the translated works in English, I always had a feeling that there was something missing.

I only realised when I read Tanizaki's In Praise Of Shadows that this had to do with the Japanese culture - the idea that in Japanese aesthetics, some things are kept hidden. I gradually realised that both Shadows and Shun-kin were really dealing with the changes in Japanese society as a result of the influence of Western culture.

Interestingly, you can read them as having this partially ironic, satirical or tongue-in-cheek tone. Back in the old days, satires were written in a more subtle manner, and you only got the extent of its hidden meanings on subsequent readings.

BT: What did you uncover from these subsequent readings?

McBurney: Shun-kin is written in a bald manner, almost documentary-like, like a detective or a reporter telling you how he pieced the puzzle of the story together.

When I first read it, I actually thought Shun-kin really existed and that the story was some kind of a newspaper report. So I went to Wikipedia and typed "Shun-kin". Of course, she doesn't exist.

But I became intrigued with the idea of different narrative voices. And then, it became a question of not just acting out the story, but seeing how the story can be told in multiple voices. So in Shun-kin, we have multiple narrators and their various stories bleed into each other.

BT: It took almost a decade to bring the story from page to stage. What were the complexities?

McBurney: I didn't think I could do it. I started on it in the 1990s and gave up, thinking it was sheer hubris that led me to think I could do it. But I decided to go back to it in 2007 and this time, I was able to peel back the layers of ideas bit by bit, and that drew me in deeper and deeper.

In 2008, I staged it, and then changed and restaged it in 2009, and in 2010, changed and restaged it again. I'm constantly rewriting and changing it.

You see, I'm a bit of a nightmare to work with because I construct a rehearsal process with almost a blank slate.

And then the actors and I uncover the story as we go along so that what comes out in the production is something that's appropriate to the actors and not forced upon them.

I see rehearsals as a process of excavation; my father was an archaeologist and I see my work as something similar - sifting through the dirt for gems.

BT: You write, direct and act. You do theatre as well as movies, even Hollywood ones like Friends With Money. You're even credited for coming out with the story for Mr Bean's Holiday. How do you keep all those balls in the air?

McBurney: I was asked to help Rowan Atkinson (the actor who plays Mr Bean), to encourage him and give him new ideas. I guess, ultimately, I'm a storyteller and I use whatever means available to me.

I'm interested in expressing things in many different ways, not just in the conventional forms available in European theatre. I'm always questioning: "What is the nature of the theatrical?"

BT: Do you get enough sleep then?

McBurney: Not so much, and now with my small children, not so much at all.

Shun-kin plays at Esplanade Theatre for three performances only: Aug 30 at 8pm, and Aug 31 at 3pm and 8pm. Ticket from $38 to $108 from Sistic. Recommended for audiences aged 17 and above due to mature content (sex and violence). Performed in Japanese with English surtitles. Patrons who require English surtitles are advised to select seats from Stalls Row H onwards. The performance is approximately two hours long, with no intermission.

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