When Simon McBurney and Complicite first collaborated with Tokyo's Setagaya Public Theatre, the result was The Elephant Vanishes, a brilliant evocation of several Murakami short stories about the dizziness brought on by the 24/7 relentlessness of contemporary urban life. Their latest venture is markedly different in its cultural focus.
Based on two 1933 works by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, Shun-kin takes us back to a 19th-century Japan before the advent of electric light, where the subtleties of the shadowy and the indistinct were preferred to the Western striving for light and clarity – and where women blackened their teeth to shade more mysteriously into the background. McBurney and his superb Japanese company transmit an unforgettable sense of that candle-lit, unsettling world of stately formality and decorous denial and the deviant erotic violence seething beneath its inscrutable surfaces.
The evening tells the story of a sado-masochistic relationship that is transfigured to idyllic happiness by an act of supreme devotion. Blinded as a child by a jealous nurse, Shun-kin grows up into a demanding spoiled brat, a great beauty and a virtuoso player-teacher of the shamisen, a stringed instrument whose wintry, flattened plucks waft through the proceedings here. But no indignity (even being booted in the swollen jaw while suffering toothache) is too great for her faithful male servant, Sasuke, who rejoices in her cruelties and becomes her submissive lover. When her looks are disfigured by an enemy, Sasuke blinds himself so as to spare her humiliation and to seal in his mind the image of beauty that has haunted him for the past 30 years.
The production takes us deep into a culture with very different values from our own (we see how the bullying teacher-pupil relationship in a music lesson could then be a kinky discharge of repressed passion).
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