Mini-review – Shunkin – Complicite at Barbican Centre

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You know what’s great about a liberal arts education? While you never learn anything particularly useful, you’ll often find you’ve learned things that make you enjoy life more. Me, I left college without having read a word of Austen, the Brontes, or Nancy Mitford (the horror!), yet I was well versed in Japanese literature. That meant the peaceful purity of Kawabata, the freak show that is Mishima, and … Tanizaki. His Makioka Sisters was one of my favorite novels, but his dark analysis of the human psyche came out much better in his short stories. I know I read his Seven Japanese Tales back in the day, but by the time 2010 rolled around, I’d completely forgotten about “A Portrait of Shunkin,” the story of a blind shamisen player and her servant/student adapted by Complicite for their current show at the Barbican (“Shun-kin”). It’s closing tonight and I wouldn’t normally spend time writing a review up this late in the game, but I loved it so much I want to make a final effort to alert anyone who might enjoy this show about what a truly stupendous work of theater it is.

First, the show is almost entirely done in Japanese. The subtitles on the sides of the stage were occasionally distracting because they required me to be constantly flicking my attention to them, causing me to miss what was happening on stage; however, this was a minor flaw. Second, while this looks like a puppet show, in fact, it’s a show in which one of the characters is occasionally portrayed by a puppet, while the other characters are all done by actual actors. Third, this show really digs into some twisted realms of the human psyche. The lightest of these moments is the bit with puppet sex (which I’ve seen before but its execution was stupendous, with the arms and legs of the puppet floating above the stage); but what it illustrates is extreme dependence, denial, and abuse. Child abandonment, attempted rape, the physical mutilation of other and self … really, it’s all quite intense and hair raising (or stomach clenching). My companion was almost speechless at the end of the night.

But what it’s all about to me is the two things I love to see most on a stage: a fantastic story and its delivery with the barest of elements (sticks, kimono, a teapot), in this case in what I see as the Peter Brook style. Shunkin’s servant, Sasuke, is portrayed both as his young self and simultaneously as his old self, remembering what happened, while a third person experiences the servant’s story as he reads it in a book; a live Shamisen player is Shunkin’s teacher but then the music of Shunkin and the music played by her servant (the music plays endlessly and adds a wonderful texture to the show). Tatami mats fly around the stage to arrange themselves as the various interiors; people hold and move poles to show doors opening and closing and walls forming (and disappearing) around the actors as they move through the space. I didn’t care for the use of projections: the fluttering pieces of paper used to show birds was more effective than the animations of them on the wall; but again, this is a quibble. Similarly I didn’t care for the framing device of the woman narrating this story in modern Japan; being snapped back to this element at the end of the story, when I just wanted to bend over and cry at the brokenness of Shunkin and Sasuke and my own inevitable death, was just too harsh and unnecessary. We ended with a whimper after the bang; but oh, such a beautiful, sad bang, with the actors holding poles draped over the quiet form of Shunkin, creating perfectly the feeling of a pine tree on the side of a hill, sheltering and hiding what she and Sasuke left on earth, and leaving us with a feeling of a sadness that lasted beyond lifetimes.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 12th, 2010. There are two final performances of Shunkin at the Barbican today, November 13th.)

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