The Theatreguide.London Review
Barbican Theatre February 2009
This new production, a seamless interaction between Complicite and the Japanese Setagaya Public Theatre, directed by Complicite's Simon McBurney, was inspired by the Japanese writer Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's 1933 essay on aesthetics 'In Praise of Shadows' and a story 'A Portrait of Shunkin'.
Performed in Japanese, with English surtitles, the 110-minutes (without intermission) are captivating.
This is a story of Shun-kin and her minion-lover Sasuke. It is an unenviable love story of a sadomasochistic attraction which leaves the audience with more questions than answers, and with neither character generating sympathy or empathy.
Blinded in her infancy by her jealous nurse, Shun-kin was indulged and spoiled by her wealthy parents. A beautiful and talented shamisen player, she is both outrageously egocentric and deeply obnoxious.
Sasuke willingly and lovingly accepts her harsh physical and emotional abuse and eventually even blinds himself when her face is disfigured as she cannot bear him to see it.
Two narrators, old and blind Sasuke and a middle-aged female reading the tale for an imagined radio audience, in turn narrate the different sides of Shun-kin. However, Shun-kin remains a mystery without resolution.
The passage of time is conveyed not only through the thematic repetition of abuse and total obedience, but in the replacement of the life-sized puppet representing the young Shun-kin by the actress who had provided her voice, and who steps out from the folds of the puppet's kimono to portray the adult.
Throughout the play there is a strong current of dynamic energy expressed in the beautifully choreographed and executed dance-like movements accompanied by the live playing of the shamisen performed in the background and foreground as an integral part of the unfolding drama.
On the other hand, the presence of the playwright hovering on stage at various intervals does little to enhance this production.
Although some of the projected images on the backdrop screen disappear before one has an opportunity to see them, for the most part the minimalist props and décor provide a stimulating journey to a foreign yet very familiar dramatized reality.
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