Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 4 February, 2009

Complicité’s last couple of productions were widely admired but condemned by some for becoming so technology-heavy that the essential “liveness” of theatre was sacrificed. It is therefore in strong contrast to The Elephant Vanishes (2003-04) that Simon McBurney’s second co-production with the Setagaya Public Theatre of Tokyo concentrates on a much sparer, more elegant, classically Japanese aesthetic in his staging.
One of the two texts by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki on which the piece is based, the aesthetic essay In Praise Of Shadows, guides McBurney’s approach here both literally and metaphorically. Lighting is used only where and as far as is absolutely necessary to show proceedings onstage (apart from a shockingly unsubtle closing tableau in which the audience is bombarded with white light), and ambiguities and uncertainties in the story, derived from Tanizaki’s A Portrait Of Shunkin (both books published 1933) are allowed to stand and resonate with us.
The latter proto-Borgesian text presents a fictitious life as factual biography, chronicling the life of a 19th century female shamisen player, Shunkin, blinded in childhood, and her complex loving/violent relationship with her servant and pupil Sasuke. The two are obsessed with one another their whole lives long, to the extent that Sasuke eventually blinds himself so that he may the more fully inhabit Shunkin’s world. The cruelty and sadism in their personal bond is echoed and contrasted with motifs of freedom and confinement: a caged lark, rituals of dressing, spatial limitations defined by the tatami mats and sotoba grave-posts which constitute virtually the entire set as they are manipulated into various configurations.
Even the portrayal of character is circumscribed: Sasuke is represented at various ages by three actors from the ten-strong Japanese cast, Shunkin at first by a child-sized puppet, then by a masked actress manipulated like a puppet; briefly she gains her own face, as it were, before being swathed in bandages. More or less naturalistic performances abut upon with formalistic use of classical Japanese stage conventions. For much of the 110-minute performance, part of me remained worried that, although consummately executed, this might none the less be little more than exotica. However, its tonal and thematic concerns are powerfully communicated, and the formalism contrasts tellingly with a lack of definition which is above all human and living.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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