Shun-Kin – review

Barbican, London

Complicite's version of a 1933 Japanese story by Jun'ichir¯o Tanizaki was coolly received when first shown nearly two years ago. I don't know why. Simon McBurney's production is one of the company's finest achievements. It offers a compelling portrait of sadomasochistic love, is full of moral ambivalence and is staged with miraculous delicacy and wit.

Tanizaki's tale reconstructs a true story from 19th-century Japan. It revolves around the relationship between the domineering Shun-kin, an Osaka merchant's blind daughter, and the devoted Sasuke, who learns from her the art of playing the stringed "shamisen", and who becomes her lifelong servant and secret lover. So intense is his passion, in fact, that when Shun-kin suffers a facial disfigurement, he performs an astonishing act of self-sacrifice. But the virtue of the story is that its meaning is left open. It can be seen as the ultimate triumph of masochistic ardour, as a study in the reversal of traditional Japanese gender roles or as an attack on a hierarchial society now eroded by industrial modernisation.

By using multiple narrators, McBurney allows for every possibility. He also turns a story filled with cruelty and violence into an object of aesthetic pleasure. The domineering Shun-kin is brilliantly represented first by a petulant puppet, then by a masked female actor, and finally by one of the puppeteers. The staging conjures a vanished world with refined simplicity: poles become waving branches, flapping papers turn into soaring larks and Honjoh Hidetaro's shamisen music even evokes the horrific act. The piece is enthralling.

Until 13 November. Box office: 020-7638 8891.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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