Lincoln Center Festival: Shun-kin

Theater, Drama
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Lincoln Center Festival: Shun-kin
Shun-kin at Setagaya Public Theatre, Tokyo, Japan Photo: ©Tsukasa AOKI, Tokyo Japan

Shun-kin. Rose Theater (see Off Broadway). Adapted from works by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. Directed by Simon McBurney. Performed in Japanese with supertitles. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 55mins. No intermission.

Shun-kin: in brief

Novelist Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1886–1965) provides the narrative and tonal inspiration for this new piece by the spellbinding English troupe Complicite. Mingling movement and Bunraku puppetry, director Simon McBurney and a Japanese cast tell stories of love, cruelty and erotic obsession.

Shun-kin: Theater review by Helen Shaw

In Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's 1933 essay "In Praise of Shadows," the writer describes what he sees as the uniquely Japanese passion for darkness. Aware on every page that he is grasping for a vanishing past, he reminds his readers that Japan has traditionally found beauty in dimly seen things—deep black lacquers, mist-shrouded woods, soft-edged silhouettes on rice-paper screens—not in the electric light and “hard, gemlike flame” of so-called Western modernity. It is this elegy for a receding dark, not (as you might expect) Tanizaki's story The Portrait of Shunkin, that serves as the deep foundational text of Simon McBurney's erotic, exquisite drama Shun-kin. But then, this joint venture between McBurney's British company, Complicite, and Japan's Setagaya Theater delights in just these twilight confusions, the graceful elision of boundaries that vanish as you look at them.

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Our story seems to begin with the elegant actor Yoshi Oida greeting us in careful English, honoring his own father (the cast silently swarms over him to clothe him in overcoat and trilby) and then his first encounter with Tanizaki's tale of a 19th-century blind woman called Shun-kin (the cast swaps the overcoat for a black kimono). Oida has now slipped backward through time and reality to become the oldest version of the fictional Sasuke—Shun-kin's servant, guide and submissive lover. Meanwhile, other narrators move through the inky blackness.

Tanizaki himself (Kentaro Mizuki) scribbles busily at a low table, occasionally swamped by his own unrequited passions, and a modern-day audio narrator (Ryoko Tateishi) bustles in to record her sections, a process interrupted by her own love affairs and brisk exchanges with the sound booth. These rememberers eventually manifest the difficult Shun-kin herself, at first a little Bunraku puppet, later a creation that blurs the line between doll-creature and living woman. Director-devisor McBurney loves to wrap his works in several layers of memory and storytelling—in A Disappearing Number, for instance, a modern-day mathematician began by narrating a story that would spiral back nearly a century. But not since the company's staggering 1999 piece, Mnemonic, do I remember the tactic working so effortlessly. There is a sense here, as there is in calligraphy, of the artist's hand “following the brush.”

The many cast members construct the blind woman's world from sliding tatami mats and briskly moving poles—somehow designer Paul Anderson lights these objects so that they glow but rarely illuminate the blackness around them. Shun-kin and Sasuke's story also emanates darkness; their erotic interconnection stems from Shun-kin's delight in inflicting pain on the always patient, eventually self-sacrificing Sasuke. Threading through these scenes, Oida's voice keeps returning, reminding us of Tanizaki's dictum that “the quality of beauty must always grow from realities of life.”

Alas, the consummate technicians of Complicite do not quite absorb Tanizaki's appreciation of flaws that come with age, the “colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.” Though Finn Ross's digital projections have startling moments of loveliness (a bright flutter of larks projected onto flying robes), they still hum with digital precision; we wonder why we see a ten-foot-tall candle flame on the back scrim when the perfect reality flickers downstage.

But the main sensation of this sublime work is an aching, sensual restraint—even, at the end, in ourselves as we try to hold back tears. The patina of old pots, which Tanizaki loved, came from the oils of many hands, the sheen of having been held and loved. Somehow Shun-kin transfers this into experience: We see master musician Honjoh Hidetaro's hands moving over his samisen, and we almost feel the wood ourselves. In fact, everything I remember of this overwhelming work seems to begin and end with hands, a feeling of being gently lifted and sustained. Hands hold the Bunraku puppet in her human alignment, and even when her puppeteer (Eri Fukatsu) rebels to become a living Shun-kin, Sasuke's hands hold her steady as she walks. Finally, when loyal Sasuke is old and near death, blind himself, these respectful, almost dispassionate puppeteers' hands become the hands of his students, helping him drink his cup of tea, settling a blanket over his sleeping body. McBurney has the cast repeat these touches as the light dies, until finally Tanizaki's magical, beneficent shadows stretch their own gentle fingers over him.—Theater review by Helen Shaw

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