The Freud is an aptly named venue for this erotically charged play with gender role reversals. It has, well, distinctly Freudian undercurrents (as in Sigmund, not Ralph — the actor and UCLA theater teacher for whom the playhouse is named) and oedipal overtones. But like the unconscious mind that was mapped by the father of psychoanalysis, director Simon McBurney’s rendition of Tanizaki’s 1933 novella Shunkinsho (A Portrait of Shunkin) is nebulous. Intentionally so.
As McBurney wrote for an article in the British quarterly The Drawbridge, “the understanding that Tanizaki requires us to engage in, is another way of looking, to see something in the unknown, seeing beauty in shadow and darkness.” In his adaptation McBurney aims for “the power of suggestion,” to attain a Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro of tonality on the stage. McBurney noted that the same year he wrote Shunkinsho, Tanizaki penned the essay In Praise of Shadows.
Yoshi Oida, who co-stars in Shun-kin and speaks in accented English, explains that Tanizaki’s shadowy conception “means everything not showing 100% but half-hidden. Shadow and darkness are important. So, on the stage you can see completely all details… So half of the path must be understood by the imagination of the public. The public is not only passive to receive, but must guess something that’s part of the shadows and darkness. The public is demanded to not only receive, but to actively use imagination… to guess what’s behind the story” by Tanizaki.
The popular, influential author, who was born in 1886 and died in 1965, also wrote novels, including Sasameyuki (A Light Snowfall), as well as short stories, screenplays and plays. He was awarded the prestigious Asahi Prize and Order of Culture in 1949, and his fame spread beyond Japan. He became the first Japanese writer elected to honorary membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.
Westerners may find some resonance to Shun-kin in the servant-master power relationships portrayed in Harold Pinter’s scathing screenplay The Servant and Alfred Uhry’s moving Driving Miss Daisy, as well as in the fiction of Thomas Hardy, whose short story “Barbara of the House of Grebe” inspired Tanizaki to write his novella.
“On the surface, Shun-kin is a story of a blind, beautiful, rich girl who becomes a very, very great musician,” says McBurney during a telephone interview from Michigan. “[Shun-kin] is served by a sighted servant [Sasuke], who adores her beyond measure and who also becomes a musician.”
Shun-kin’s dependency and Sasuke’s adoration is so intense that their relationship, which begins in childhood, lasts lifelong, becomes sexual and leads to a denouement this spoiler-averse writer won’t reveal. However, in between performances at Ann Arbor, Oida, who portrays Old Sasuke, says in a phone interview that his character “destroys himself — but with love,” so he can “continue to serve his master.” Oida adds that Sasuke “is played by three actors: young actor [Songha], middle-aged actor [Keitoku Takata, who has multiple roles] and an old actor, who is me.”
While growing up, Oida read much Tanizaki, but this is the first time he’s acted in a piece derived from Tanizaki’s oeuvre. Shun-kin is interesting, he says, because “when I was young, 65 years ago, in Japan the man must be served, and the women must serve the man. So man must be macho; he mustn’t be so soft as woman. But Shun-kin story is on the contrary, man serves the woman. Which is a completely different way to portray the women. Sixty-five years ago it was a very shocking story, because the relationship between men and women was the opposite of the usual relations during that period.”
McBurney cautions that calling the mistress and servant’s romance “sadomasochistic… would be to put too clear a label on it, because in Japan, everything is ambiguous [and] continuous… The eroticism is in everything they do… but not in a Western sense, which tends to be very explicit and bald. It’s eroticism in terms of suggestion, implied sexuality, it’s what you see out of the corner of your eye, it’s what you feel when there’s a hand very lightly touching the base of your back. It’s the eroticism of a light wind on your thigh… Even to ask ‘is there any graphic nudity?’ is a very difficult question for me to answer… If you think I’m being deliberately obtuse, you could be right, but on the other hand it’s the nature of the piece,” says McBurney.
Although his answers might sound as nebulous as the play itself, ticket buyers should not expect to see explicit sexual content.
The Japanese-UK connection
The dialogue is spoken in Japanese, accompanied by English supertitles. The music, played on a traditional three-string instrument, is composed by the award-winning musician Honjoh Hidetaro, whom McBurney calls “Japan’s greatest shamisen player, a shamisen master.” The cast of nine includes notables, with theater and film actress Eri Fukatsu playing the title role. Onstage Fukatsu has appeared in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Glass Menagerie; her screen credits include 2010’s Villain and the 2009 Big Island of Hawaii-shot Honokaa Boy.
Born the year Shunkinsho was written, 80-year-old Oida has acted in movies such as Peter Greenaway’s 1996 adaptation of The Pillow Book, co-starring Ewan McGregor in another Japanese literary classic about sexuality, by Sei Shōnagon, a 10th century lady-in-waiting.
The Kobe-born actor’s unusual career path took him to France in 1968 for renowned director Peter Brook’s experimental version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Oida has been based there for decades, working with Brook’s company, International Centre for Theatre Research (CIRT), now at Paris’ Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. He was part of Brook’s company when it presented the US premiere of The Mahabarata in Hollywood in 1987. Oida lavishes praise on the 88-year-old Brook, who helmed the stage and screen versions of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade and the harrowing 1963 movie Lord of the Flies, as “a great creator; one of the greatest directors of the 20th century and even now.”
McBurney, who also acts (but not in Shun-kin), played the title role in a 2000 biopic about the revolutionary Soviet director of 1925’s classic Battleship Potemkin in [Sergei] Eisenstein, and has appeared in 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate, 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, Showtime’s The Borgias series and Woody Allen’s Paris-lensed, as yet untitled 2014 feature. McBurney was born in 1957 in Cambridge, England to an academic father from Massachusetts and an Irish mother, and went on to study at Cambridge University in the UK. The director/writer/actor founded the cutting edge British theatre company Complicite in 1983, and became — reluctantly, he confesses — its artistic director in 1991.
Complicite is co-producing Shun-kin with Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre and London’s the Barbican in association with Radar L.A., while Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA is presenting the play during the Los Angeles leg of its globetrotting tour to Tokyo, London, Paris, Taipei, New York, Hyogo (Japan), Singapore and at Ann Arbor, where Michiganders took a gander at the one-acter in the Power Center for the Performing Arts.
Complicite sounds like a good choice for creating this theatrical version of the ambiguous Shun-kin, which had previously been adapted into a 1975 opera composed by Minoru Miki, with a libretto by Jun Maeda, and a 1976 film directed by Katsumi Nishikawa.
McBurney describes Complicite as “both a complicated and a simple thing. We are a very small organization, like a little terrorist cell, in North London — that is to say we can react very fast and we make co-productions all over the world with different theater companies. It began simply as a collective, as an act of resistance against the prevailing orthodoxy — be that political, social or theatrical. Because there were things we wanted to talk about which we saw nobody talking about in ways not particularly theatrical. So we were prepared to make theater anywhere that anybody would have us. There’s no fear for the consequences. We were a very radical group, the work was violent, funny, in opposition to what you can think of as the very conventional British theater of the day,” which was during the right-wing reign of Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Oida first worked with McBurney years ago in a Brook workshop for young directors. “Five years ago Simon McBurney asked me to work with him,” Oida says. “He’s very intelligent, very inspiring and concentrates on visual things. I feel this piece is like… a moving, modern painting…”
Confronting a cultural conundrum
Can somebody from one ethnic group authentically express another culture’s reality? The “you-don’t-have-to-be-a-chicken-to-know-an-egg” conundrum has confronted artists for ages.
Although he is a gaijin — the Japanese word for an outsider — McBurney may have the nuanced sensibility necessary for transposing Tanizaki to the stage. Complicite toured Japan in the 1990s. McBurney steeped himself in Japanese literature and, he says, “experimented with different ideas and did research on memory, and worked with Japanese actors on their experience of memory.” This included the notion “of identity. What does it mean to be Japanese? American? From LA? From London? Where do we consider home to be?” asked McBurney.
He found commonalities between cultures but also differences. “The Japanese come not from a dualistic vision of the world. The Greeks gave us a very strong sense of dualism. We tend to see things in black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, bad guys and good guys. One of the fascinating things about Japanese culture is that the world is not viewed with the same idea of separation between one thing and another, but in the sense that everything is interconnected… holistic.”
According to Oida, “Nobody can judge who really understands what Tanizaki’s sensibility is, even the Japanese. Each person took the piece a different way. Until now, European people did theater or film material from Japan, and Japanese people didn’t like [the results]. Maybe this is the first time a Westerner used Japanese material and the Japanese loved it. So it’s a very rare thing. Because all Japanese accept the interpretation of Simon McBurney.”
The actor adds that he had been worried how Western audiences would react to Shun-kin because they had to read lots of text via supertitles. “But that seems to be no problem…It’s well-received in Paris, London and New York, which is a very astonishing result. But only one thing — for the love story… it’s very astonishing and the public feels this is very Japanese. Very difficult for Europeans to understand — which maybe is true, but at the same time you have the play Oedipus [by Sophocles]… so I don’t think it’s too exotic a story,” says Oida, drawing a parallel between Shun-kin and Greek tragedy.
“The theater is a kind of international currency,” McBurney asserts. “That is to say… if you are an artist in any country and you meet another artist, you find there are some fundamental aspects of artistic life that you have in common.”
Oida adds, “Good plays always tell the truth about human beings. Simon took human truth out of the story — Simon did it very well.”
McBurney prefers to regard this production — which lasts one hour, 50 minutes, without intermission — as being more of “a theatrical event” than “a conventional play.”
Who knows what lurks in the heart of Shun-kin? The shadows know!
Shun-kin, Freud Playhouse, UCLA, 245 Charles E. Young Drive East, Los Angeles, 90095. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Sunday. www.cap.ucla.edu. For info on Sept. 26 opening night benefit see: cap.ucla.edu/benefit.