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.
These theatrical feints are not out of place in Tanizaki's world - the Japanese writer himself enjoyed playing around with storytelling conventions and using unreliable narrators to add psychological depth and insight to racy or sexually deviant material.
But what it means for the audience is that McBurney's Shun- kin takes some work to get into, placed in the position as we are of having to peel away all the different layers.
The pay-offs are stunning, though. The production's biggest masterstroke lies in its portrayal of the proud, enigmatic title character.
The story opens with Shun-kin as a young girl, represented by a Bunraku puppet doll who appears with two black-garbed puppeteer-attendants, including actress Eri Fukatsu who voices her teenage whims and cruelties convincingly.
A number of male actors take turns to embody the devoted Sasuke over different periods of his life. His interplay with the puppet Shun-kin is compelling to watch, bringing out all that is comic and kinky about their relationship as well as their deepening bond as the puppet metamorphoses into an actual woman, played by Fukatsu, with the same cool stylised movements.
Staged in semi-darkness, the production is redolent with the images and sounds of doors being opened - the whizzing of bamboo sticks manipulated by actors to evoke the sliding of paper doors on wooden frames; the crack of light from a vending machine as the radio narrator enters and exits a darkened studio.
Digital projections on a scrim are faint and delicate, as little is allowed to disrupt the shadowy world of the narrative. The strongest image, which hits the audience like a blow, is the mask of pain that flashes on the screen when Shun-kin is disfigured by an enemy.
Despite periodic moments when the action sags from the weight of its myriad strands, somehow everything comes together. On its opening night, the production received three curtain calls from the typically reticent Singapore audience.
This is a play about uncovering mysteries and how some things remain ineffable or unsaid - whether for Sasuke, Shun- kin, the radio narrator, us or McBurney.
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