Master And Everyone
I went to see Shun-kin on Saturday night after a last minute full-bellied sprint from Pho to the Barbican that has by now become a tradition. This is the second collaboration between Complicite and Setagaya Public Theatre following 2003’s The Elephant Vanishes.
It is a rather slender narrative, particularly in comparison to the richness of Complicite’s recent works. Shunkin is the daughter a merchant in 19th Century Japan. She is blinded in childhood and becomes both a spoilt brat and a master of the shamisen. Sasuke, a servant boy a couple of years older than her, is the only person she will allow to act as her guide. They form a life long relationship of dominance and submission with a strong – at first implied and then explicit – sexual element. As is inescapable these days this simple narrative is nested within a couple of framing devices: the original story within a contemporary investigation and re-telling within the recording of a radio dramatisation of this re-telling. Again, this compares unfavourably to similar layering in The Disappearing Number.
Complicite was never really about narrative though. As always this is an extraordinary multimedia feast, precise minimalism and sumptuous detail, bound together by a live shamisen score written and performed by Honjoh Hidetaro. At the centre of thisl is Shunkin, at first a doll and then a puppet and then, finally, played by a woman but with such a seamless continuity that means that when she is eventually manifest in flesh and blood by an actor on the stage this fact is not immediately clear. Such innovation never suggests gimickery, only boldness and skill.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Lyn Gardner when she suggests this is a pale imitiation of previous work. Pale Complicite is still potent though. The production has now finished but I would imagine there will be another run at the Barbican this year or next and I would recommend you keep an eye out for it because, detrimental comparisons notwithstanding, it is essential viewing.
The artistic director of Complicite, Simon McBurney, has many strings to his bow, from playing the Duke in Measure For Measure at the National a couple of years ago to writing and producing Mr Bean’s Holiday (which is perhaps less surprising that it might at first seem when you consider his background in physical theatre). He also pops up in front of the camera from time to time, recently as Fra Pavel in The Golden Compass. I saw this for the first time earlier in the month and, despite being a critical and commercial failure, I thought it was rather good. Admittedly it is very much a group of individual set pieces strung together like beads on a necklace but what a well-wrought necklace. I’m disappointed that the appearance of the sequels now seems increasingly unlikely.