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 (www.barbican.org.uk), from 30 January to 21 February

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