Simon McBurney: 'It's chaos. You start with a bomb...'

Complicite has been stunning theatre-goers for a quarter of a century. Its explosive force comes from a tireless creative polymath who is about to unleash the company's latest play

Simon McBurney is leading a giant puppet down a green carpet. He is giving instructions in English, which are being translated into Japanese. Around him, I'm vaguely aware, is a cluster of small, thin people with black hair and black tracksuits. But as I tiptoe past, I hardly dare look. Who knows what magic it takes to make a Complicite production? Who knows what it takes to break it?

Complicite is the theatre company started by Simon McBurney (with Annabel Arden and Marcello Magni) 26 years ago, the company which, according to the theatre critic John O'Mahony, "irrevocably changed the face of British theatre". Arthur Miller admired it so much that he was keen for McBurney to direct his own work. When it finally happened – when McBurney directed All My Sons in a Broadway-blitzing production last autumn – Miller's daughter, Rebecca, said that she had never had "so many cathartic spine-tingling moments". The last Complicite production, A Disappearing Number, won practically every award going, and inspired Stephen Fry to write a film and David Leavitt to write a novel. "Over the last 20 years," said the critic Lyn Gardner, "I have seen thousands of productions in the theatre, but it is the images from Complicite that are branded on my brain."

And it's true. Give me the title of a book and I couldn't tell you, these days, if I've reviewed it or seen it on a shelf, but I'll never forget the sight of Kathryn Hunter looming over the National Theatre's Lyttelton stage on giant stilts, or of books flapping like birds, or of a tiny woman rolling out of something like a coffin. The stilts were in The Visit, the Complicite production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's post-war play; the books were in The Street of Crocodiles, inspired by the short stories of Polish writer Bruno Schulz, and the tiny woman was in The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, based on a story by John Berger. The productions were in 1991, 1992 and 1994. We are none of us getting any younger.

Some of us, however, are getting even more manically energetic. Some of us are producing annual (or more than annual) masterpieces of theatre and then squeezing in a bit of directing on Broadway, or at home, or for live shows by Lenny Henry, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. Some of us have a little sideline as a brilliant film actor – in The Duchess, The Golden Compass, The Last King of Scotland – and as a telly actor, in The Vicar of Dibley, and as a writer and executive producer for Mr Bean. Some of us make some of us sick.

But some of us, at 51, are showing signs of human frailty, too. "It's my back," says McBurney, as he bends to shake my hand and winces. "The flight back from New Yor.k" As he ushers me from the little room where I've been waiting, into the rehearsal room I tiptoed through 40 minutes before (a Complicite lunch break, like a Complicite production, is a thing of great fluidity) we talk about the body and the brain. "Did you know," he asks, "that, biochemically, memory and imagination are the same?" No, I didn't. But I did know that Complicite productions are all about memory and imagination, and all about the body and the brain.

And the McBurney brain, it soon becomes clear, is a thing not just of great fluidity, and of insatiable curiosity, and miraculous melding of collective cultural memory and idiosyncratic imagination, but also of great determination and focus. It is a thing that can take an interviewer's question on a long and fascinating journey, in which the glimmerings of an answer are only just, towards the end, beginning to coalesce – and in which each question could take an hour, but we've only got an hour. Around us are people tapping away at laptops, others staring at bits of paper, and a large group of Japanese actors eating their lunch. It's like a factory of ideas, the physical manifestation, in fact, of the brain of the man sitting next to me, a man with hair rumpled like a dandelion clock.

I have made the tactical error of asking about McBurney's interest in Japanese culture, a subject, as it turns out, as deep as the ocean, as high as the sky. The Elephant Vanishes, the production before A Disappearing Number, was inspired by the stories of Haruki Murakami, and Shun-kin, the production currently in rehearsal (which has already appeared in Tokyo) is based on work by the great Japanese writer Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. McBurney's answer has begun with a trip to Japan in 1995 and included the hotel sheets and pillows, and the homogeneity of Tokyo, and the fact that the earliest memories of different generations were all the same (rice, for those in their sixties, a particular place for those in their fifties and, for teenagers, TV), and a spirit of co-operation and intensity, and a feeling of stepping through a looking glass, where everything is "slightly but significantly different", and a sense of extraordinary ambiguity and that "everything contains its opposite". All this is like wandering through a beautiful Japanese garden, gazing at blossom and lilies and little footbridges over streams, but I can feel time ticking away.

"I suppose what happened," he says, when I butt in for the third time, "was that I wanted to do a project in Japan because I had met these absolutely wonderful actors. I think, really, it's the same reason I do anything. I wanted to find out. I felt that I didn't understand Japan and I wanted people to tell me things, so I started with Tanizaki and this essay In Praise of Shadows in which he talks about the fact that in Japan, as opposed to the West, shadows and darkness are touchstones of beauty, whereas in the West, it's all about light.... And in Japan, you've got novels, like Tanizaki's, that begin and they just seem to disintegrate. I found myself looking at In Praise of Shadows, thinking, 'Oh my God, this is something I don't understand.'"

And so, of course, McBurney set out to understand, started to learn Japanese, started to work on the story of a blind musician who has an affair, made contact with one of the greatest players of the shamisen ("like a guitar, except it sounded to me like an instrument going kerplink") and discovered that some of Tanizaki's sentences, running over three pages, were constructed "to get at the notion of disintegrating sight" and that "in Japan, there is the idea of an expanding suggestion, rather than a goal achieved". And then, amazingly, he gave up. "My heart started going like this," he says, beating his chest, "every time I thought let's do this project. Then I thought, I can't do it."

Instead, he picked up Murakami, got some actors together and started working on The Elephant Vanishes. "Then," he says, "I had this very strange sensation, that there was something that was exactly the same, something that kept disintegrating in my hand. Why is this story about an elephant that vanishes? What's it about? It's not clear."

Like a moth to flame, or perhaps a director drawn to disappearing numbers, vanishing elephants and texts of infinite ambiguity, he went back to Tanizaki, and discovered that the story "A Portrait of Shun-kin" was not just an exercise in nostalgia, but a reworking of a Thomas Hardy story into something that's both part of the great international modernist enterprise ("he's doing what Virginia Woolf is trying to do, he's trying to revitalise language") and also, in its playful exploration of unreliable narrators, presciently postmodern. "It's about playing with ideas and pictures," he explains. "I start with a personal story of one of the actors, and it's through that story that you get into the piece, and the people on stage dress up into their kimonos, so the kimonos are seen to be objects rather than costumes, and we play with puppetry. So we created our world, just as Tanizaki does. He pretends to be doing something terribly Japanese, but he's taken a Hardy story and transposed it."

But then Simon McBurney has always appeared to take as his mantra the maxim of his hero, Peter Brook, that "a play is play". The son of an American archaeologist and a housewife who directed her children's plays in the garden, McBurney grew up without a TV, and with a radio that was only unearthed for the annual carols from King's. At Cambridge, where he read English, he did student theatre with his then girlfriend, Emma Thompson, before running away to Paris to study theatre and mime under Jacques Lecoq. His influences, and collaborators, have always been international. The pact of complicity into which his work invites us has always been anti-parochial, and anti clear labels. It has, in other words, always been about opening up.

"I might be like a conductor," he says, "or I collect the stuff together and I do a lot of my own writing. But what is a pleasure is the whole creative thing in which we're all excavating and trying to find something. I always thought I'd be a performer and I love acting, and so going out and acting in a film really informs what I do here. It revitalises me. I do find it very difficult to make work, but when I do it, I find that I commit to it very deeply. I'm passionate about music, and I feel that theatre has an extraordinarily musical ability in the way it operates on the audience."

So how would he describe the process of what it is he does when he has a text that is not a play, and makes it into the thing that is Complicite? McBurney smiles. "Chaos," he says. "The first thing you've got to do is put a bomb under it, or take a scalpel, and try to understand it, and play around, and then you grind to a halt and do something else." And does he ever fear that it's going to stay chaos? The smile turns into a grimace. "Yes," he says. "It's horrendous. When I was doing A Disappearing Number in Plymouth, we had to go on an hour and a half late, and I still hadn't written an end, so we had to make one up, and then we had to go out literally with our pants round our ankles. But," he adds,"I feel that if you can play on the streets or in a comedy club, then in a theatre it's a doddle because you've got an audience."

And then he calls out to a young Japanese woman with a face so exquisite you could get lost in it (he is, incidentally, engaged to a Japanese woman) and asks her to show me the instrument she was about to put away. It's a tsuzumi, apparently. The woman unwraps it, beats the base of it and sings, in a wild, guttural voice. It's strange. It's beautiful. It's pure Complicite.

'Shun-kin' is at the Barbican Theatre, London EC1 (, from 30 January to 21 February

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster