Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I don’t like theatre much, though I do go to see a play on the odd occasion (approximately every 2 years). Generally theatre is like bad television, in my opinion, only confronting. However, when it’s good, theatre is just great. So it was with the play Shunkin, which is produced by the complicite company and is somehow related to some stories by Junichiro Tanizaki, who incidentally wrote the essay “In Praise of Shadows”. This essay is said to have particular relevance to the area of Japan where I lived, which is called the “Shadow of the Mountains Coast” and is meant to have a more shadowy feel about it. But I digress…

Shunkin is a play about a blind rich woman in 19th century Japan, who takes her servant as a lover and proceeds to treat him very sadistically. Her servant is a masochist so he loves it, and the play is about how their love develops and how their life proceeds. The lead character, Shunkin, is mostly played by a doll, but the doll is led around the stage by a famous Japanese actress, Eri Fukatsu (I think),  who does the voice and movements of the doll brilliantly. The set is also populated by mysterious crew in black, who move the props around in a very inobtrusive but effective manner to produce, using just some sticks and pieces of paper, various cunning effects : swaying overhanging tree branches, sliding doors, gravestones, a fragmented screen on which Shunkin’s face is projected, and nightingales amongst other things. Sometimes the doll swaps for a human actress and one doesn’t even notice, and the stage slips between light and darkness with brilliant effect. The stage is always populated with very simple objects – sticks, paper and tatami mats mostly, and very little else. The scenes flick  between 20th century Japan and the Meiji era, with the narration alternating between a woman in the modern era and the voice of Shunkin’s servant, and the voice of Tanizaki himself. This has the eery effect of linking the eras of the servant’s youth, his dotage and modern Japan in a kind of mutually critical framework – so Tanizaki criticises modern aesthetics, the aging servant criticises his young self, and the female narrator in the modern era criticises her lover and adjusts her own life in light of what she reads and sees.

This play also uses silence and simple sounds in a way which in my opinion is characteristic of the Japanese aesthetic of simplicity. When shoji screens slide back, it’s like a mime reinforced by the movmeent of a single stick, and the sound of someone breathing out; there is occasional careful use of silence, just as we are used to seeing in modern anime like Nausicaa and Akira. Simple sounds and tones, and the use of light and fragmentary images, combine to produce ghostly and highly emotive effects.

The story itself is simple, cruel and engaging, though it takes a bit of time to adapt to the frequent shifts of perspective and the various narrative voices. The ending was breathtakingly beautiful, as well as unexpected, and contains a simple message (not necessarily good) about what people will do for love, and its cruel power.

Also there is doll sex.

I strongly recommend seeing this play, and I will be keeping an eye out for other works by this theatre group: Complicite, make a note of it!