sat 15/06/2024

Shun-kin, Complicite, Barbican Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Shun-kin, Complicite, Barbican Theatre

Shun-kin, Complicite, Barbican Theatre

Puppetry taken to stunning heights in a story of a blind musician

Imperious Shun-kin trains up pupil Sasuke (Songha Cho)Tristram Kenton

Complicite’s Shun-kin delivers sex and violence aplenty. A warped, wilfully kinky fusion of the two lies at the core of the play and its central relationship – sexy, edgy material with just the right degree of poetry to help smooth its way across the sophisticated palate of London’s theatre-goers. Yet to dwell on this is both to misunderstand and misrepresent Simon McBurney’s generous drama.

With a skill typical of this company, a tale rooted in the passions and perversions of a single character becomes an echo chamber for a muted symphony of historical and philosophical musings.

Although it is 20th-century Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s A Portrait of Shun-kin that provides the direct source for the play, it is Tanizaki’s collection of meditative writings, In Praise of Shadows, that proves the starting point for McBurney’s staging. Paul Anderson’s lighting carves delicately lit spaces out of the mossy blackness, framing the deliberately limited world of the play’s action in a landscape that remains perpetually alien. Padded platforms manipulated by black-clad figures provide rooms, houses, gardens – the unstable and forever-limited domestic world of Shunkin herself.

A blind master of the shamisen (the Japanese three-stringed lute), Shun-kin is entirely Tanizaki’s own creation, but she is disguised by the author as a creature of historical fact, embedded in a pseudo-autobiographical narrative. It’s a sleight of hand both claimed and adapted by McBurney, who establishes his tale in a contemporary recording studio where a middle-aged woman (Ryoko Tateishi) narrates the tale for future broadcast. A deafening urban soundscape of Kyoto’s railway station gives way suddenly to the muffled silence of the studio, the disembodied voice of the producer the only point of reference.

Set against the banal off-duty telephone exchanges between the narrator and her younger lover (a mock fight, reconciliation and reminiscences all develop with laborious realism) the story of Shun-kin emerges. Following her from her loss of sight at the age of eight to her death, we learn of her studies at the shamisen and her growing relationship with servant, guide, pupil and eventually lover Sasuke.

Mercurial, dominating and affected, her whining girlish cries never silent for long, there is little to charm in the figure of Shun-kin. Her fascination is entirely entangled with her relationship with Sasuke, a figure she relies upon for dramatic fulfilment every bit as much as for her everyday needs. Drawing on traditions of bunraku puppetry as well as Noh theatre, the animated wooden child (manipulated and voiced by two women dressed in black) takes human form in adulthood, still manipulated by the puppeteers of Blind Summit Theatre, before casting off assistance altogether and achieving full physical autonomy just before her death.

This puppetry not only reflects but shapes the action, with repetitive cycles of gesture and violence mirroring the limited motions of the wooden creature. Bodies – and identities – become fragmented, a torso unconnected to its limbs, a voice without form, Sasuke reduced simply to a hand to lead the blind musician. The divorce between physicality and humanity is completed in the team of enablers who swarm about the action, manipulating wooden poles to create absent architecture, manipulating the wooden or masked characters that occupy the role of the heroine.

With the visual hallmarks of Complicite everywhere (a swiftly fluttering sheet of paper becomes a bird, swaying wooden poles take the place of a tree, red darts of paper animate a head wound), the show lives in its details. Narrative is linear and uncomplicated, analysis and conclusion are limited; it is the visuals and the minutely crafted assembly of component parts that create the allusive space that render Shun-kin more than a pretty exercise in storytelling.

Facing mixed reviews at its London debut almost two years ago, Shun-kin is as close to a critical failure as Simon McBurney and Complicite have ever come. True, there is little here of the conceptual breadth of A Disappearing Number, or the technical complexity of The Elephant Vanishes, but disappointment does seem to have been the product of misplaced expectation rather than any inherent flaws. Audiences for the play’s return visit to the Barbican should now be primed to set aside notions of what a Complicite show involves, and judge this elegantly simple piece as its own entity.

A swiftly fluttering sheet of paper becomes a bird, swaying wooden poles take the place of a tree, red darts of paper animate a head wound

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters