Shun-kin, Barbican, London<br>Duet for One, Almeida, London<br>Spring Awakening, Lyric Hammersmith, London

Puppetry shows a remarkable ability to tug the heart strings in Complicite's haunting new piece

Reviewed,Kate Bassett
Sunday 08 February 2009 01:00

Music lessons and sadomasochism, that's the gist of Shun-kin. Junichiro Tanizaki's novella – written in the 1930s but looking back to the previous century – tells the story of Shun-kin and Sasuke, a beautiful, spoilt daughter of well-to-do parents, and her adoring lackey. Complicite's haunting new adaptation is staged by Simon McBurney with wraith-like puppets, ghostly multi-layered projections, and quietly concentrated Japanese actors (from Toyko's Setagaya Public Theatre).

Having been blinded by a spiteful nursemaid, Shun-kin becomes a devoted musical prodigy, playing the samisen with instruction from a rigorous master. Simultaneously, she develops a vicious streak. She teaches her serving-boy the instrument, but thrashes him whenever he puts a finger wrong. Physically and amorously smitten, he becomes her closet lover, so hooked on her that when she is later disfigured and cannot bear to be seen he blinds himself.

It's hard to know what lesson to draw. Practice makes perversity? But moralising and elucidating are not Tanizaki's aims. (He was, apparently, a covert glutton for punishment himself.) His tone, as narrator, is elusive, and McBurney's adaptation retains this sense of mystery by leaving some things in the dark. Surrounded by an ocean of black, often lit only by candles, Shun-kin remains impenetrable: a porcelain mask which you never quite get behind; a gorgeous trailing kimono that opens, in one scene, to reveal emptiness.

This piece may not inspire full emotional sympathy, but it is executed with a mesmerising serenity, at a slow, dreamlike pace, and with touches of gentle humour too. Just five bamboo canes – manipulated by near-invisible figures in black – conjure up a maze of corridors and sliding walls which open with whispering sighs. Meanwhile, the characters multiply, fragment and fuse, with role-swapping, lightning-speed costume changes, and with the author Tanizaki seen hovering in a raincoat and trilby around the edges of his fantasy, eventually stepping into it.

In Duet for One, Juliet Stevenson's wheelchair-bound Stephanie has been a virtuoso violinist but, like Jacqueline du Pré, she has become crippled by multiple sclerosis. Tom Kempinski's 1980 two-hander charts her struggle to cope as she unwillingly consults a psychiatrist, Henry Goodman's Dr Feldmann. Shrink plays can be irritating, spelling out motivations or reducing life stories to neat patterns. The latter tendency is at work in Feldmann's compacted therapy course in which the patient's suppressed rage at her disease is compared to her past battle with her father, who tried to stop her flowering as a musician.

What's clever and winning is that Kempinski's two-hander starts by questioning psychoanalysis. Feldmann is hilariously annoying in his professional habits, offering the talking cure yet refusing to converse normally, staring at his brogues whenever his patient pauses and expects an answer.

I've not seen Stevenson so entertaining: a sharply sardonic woman giving the self-appointed guru an earful. Yet you sympathise with him, too, for the bruising flak he takes in releasing her demons. This piece raises far-reaching questions about how anyone manages when laid off from whatever gives their life meaning, and how each of us, when so bereft, might regain our sense of self.

Still, what's really riveting about Matthew Lloyd's production is that both his stars are on scintillating form. This has to be one of the treats of the year, in terms of acting. With a silvery beard and mittel-European accent, Goodman manages to have more flecked humanity than a mere archetype. He makes you oscillate, half-doubting and half-trusting Feldmann's sagacity. Meanwhile, Stevenson gradually exposes the hopelessness masked by her high-powered manner. She rises impressively to her closing impassioned speeches about music, and makes an unnervingly credible invalid, her angular head looking too large for her skinny body.

As for Spring Awakening, this is a musical reworking of Frank Wedekind's banned 1890s' tragedy in which adolescents – repressed by their elders – develop guilt-ridden erotic fantasies, get drawn into S&M, and try to break free. This has been a Broadway hit and comes garlanded with Tonys, but its bid to re-inject radical oomph into the drama is not entirely persuasive. The plot advances joltingly between songs and some of Steven Sater's lyrics could be wittier. Nevertheless, he and composer Duncan Sheik's punk anthems are stormingly hilarious, with a bunch of Victorian teens, in wing collars and woollen breeches, vaulting off their wooden chairs, legs splayed as in a Sex Pistols gig.

Michael Mayer's production is miles more hip than your average musical, with choreography by Bill T Jones and a set that's like a Victorian school hall pulsating with neon lights. Mayer's cast of young Brits are joyously assured. Aneurin Barnard is beautifully ardent as the rebel, Melchior, with strong support from his sweetheart, Charlotte Wakefield's Wendla, and his neurotic-gothic friend Iwan Rheon's Moritz. All names to watch.

'Shun-kin' (0845 120 7550) to 21 Feb; 'Duet for One' (020-7359 4404) to 14 Mar then touring; 'Spring Awakening' (0871 221 1722) to 14 Mar

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