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First Night: Shun-kin, Barbican Theatre, London

Stealthy charm is not enough to save cruel love tale

A few years ago, Simon McBurney and his Complicité company, arguably the only experimental British set-up (troupe is the wrong word) with a genuine international profile, co-operated with the Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo on a revelatory theatrical animation of the stories of Haruki Murakama, The Elephant Vanishes.

Sushi, sushi, listen who dares: Simon McBurney is saying his prayers. And he's convened the same arrangement to unravel the writing of another popular 20th-century Japanese writer, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), who in 1933 wrote A Portrait of Shunkin, a sadistic love story concerning a 19th-century merchant's daughter and her older apprentice, and a related essay on Japanese aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows.

The resulting show, lasting two long hours with no interval, while possessing a quiet and stealthy charm, is not all that big a deal. It's not a patch on The Elephant Vanishes, which bristled with vivacity and invention. Shun-kin proceeds at a single slow pace, with a confused perspective of the narrator living in Osaka in the 1930s who is telling the story, and the ageing lover, Sasuke, who survived Shunkin, blind from birth and disfigured in an attack.

Shunkin's talent is as a master of the shamisen, the Japanese three-stringed lute, played in the shadows by a seated musician, while the narrator reads the story by a desk light on the other side of the stage. This narrator is making a translation of "our" theatre experience into another medium, but this layer is never properly explored, except gratuitously at the end in a blazing exit by the protagonists upstage into the "real" world. I kicked myself with annoyance at this cheap trick.

Although continuously humiliated by Shunkin, Sasuke – I can't tell you who plays what or whom because the programme doesn't – refuses to give up on her and blinds himself, piercing his eyes with pins. As Shunkin is already blind, they could have jointly become sarcastically known as "old four eyes," I suppose, but instead he just tends to her every need, wraps her face in bandages, rests his mouth against her cooling feet, only for her to, well, kick him violently in the teeth.

The show is calmly laid out on a collection of dun-coloured mats, and much the most striking element is the representation of young Shunkin as a half life-size doll – the creation, funnily enough, of Blind Summit Theatre – operated and spoken for by two graceful lady attendants. The whole technique is one of illustrating a story rather than inhabiting it and while this might have a certain aesthetic appeal for some, for others (and me) it just seems dull. Even Brecht's theory of alienation didn't mean you didn't get involved; that was all about critical appreciation.

When the doll becomes a pasty-faced woman, sensuously stripped to the waist and bathed by her ladies, you become interested in her potential as a siren or Scheherazade, but she remains a blank, a collection of words summoned by the narrator and fleshed out as an afterthought.

Oh, and when facial violence is administered, guess what? A stream of red ribbons. Not so much cutting edge as rusty razors, methinks. One can only be grateful we didn't have to watch a river crossing and the subsequent billowing of a lot of blue silk.