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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008


A living play appears from the past

Special to The Japan Times

"I have absolutely no idea beforehand what exactly I am going to do. Everything comes together really at the last minute," says 50-year-old English dramatist Simon McBurney when asked how he's approaching his latest collaboration. Working with Japanese actors, McBurney is producing "Shunkin," a play based on works by Taisho Era novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1896-1965), for a world premiere on Feb. 21 at Tokyo's Setagaya Public Theatre (SEPT).

News photo
Eri Fukatsu is one of several actresses playing the lead role in "Shunkin." © YASUHIDE KUGE

The cofounder of the London-based Complicite theater company, McBurney first worked with SEPT in 2003 on "Elephant Vanishes," a work based on stories by the novelist Haruki Murakami. Whereas "Elephant Vanishes" examined the lonely lives of modern urban dwellers, "Shunkin" looks to the past to tell of a mysterious relationship between Shunkin, a blind koto master, and her servant and lover Sasuke.

McBurney has drawn on Tanizaki's 1933 works "Shunkin Sho (A Portrait of Shunkin)," a short novel, and "In'ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows)," an essay on aesthetics. Fascinated by the works since he first visited Japan, the English director tells The Japan Times what he's learned from them about memory, language and identity.

Why are you so interested in novelist Junichiro Tanizaki's works?

When I first came to Japan in 1995, I did workshops about memory — a topic I was interested in at that time, wondering how it works and about its biochemistry, for example. In 1999, I actually made a play about memory titled "Mnemonic." I started to wonder how different people in different cultures see the past. When I was talking to a friend in Japan about this, he gave me a copy of "In'ei Raisan" by Tanizaki. I discovered it was not just an essay about aesthetics, but also about the ways Japanese writers might meditate on the past.

Meanwhile, I discovered that in our brains, the biochemical reactions involved in memory are exactly the same as those of the imagination. I realized that Tanizaki totally "imagined" the past — he didn't try to say this is how the past was, but he was playing with the idea of the past. This playing with the past is something I am very interested in. In "Shunkin Sho," he pretended he was documenting a real story from the 1850s, and he quoted lines from a bogus book called "Shunkin-den." So, he set up this atmosphere first and then asked himself whether these things really happened or didn't happen — meaning that his novel is Tanizaki's meditation on how he tells a story.

News photo
Simon McBurney, director of "Shunkin" NOBUKO TANAKA PHOTO

How are you staging "Shunkin"?

For me, it's very important that many young people will come to see this play — not just Tanizaki fans — and that they want to see a new kind of theater. Whatever we do, we and the actors must connect with the people of today. We must not focus on whether the actors' Kansai accents are perfect or not — that would be like English people saying you are not speaking Shakespeare's English quite right. That's not a question for a piece of theater — the question we always ask about a piece of theater is just this: "Is it alive?"

Every day now, I am starting to understand more about the story. It's a very strange process for me as I am trying to understand what's going on in the language (Japanese) as well. Every day we are making discoveries. Then we have to react to what's written and invent something from there.

Why did you choose "Shunkin Sho" from among all of Tanizaki's works?

I often think I shouldn't have, and that I should have chosen something else (laughs). However, sometimes you must set yourself a challenge.

He was creating a new language during a transitional period in history, in the 1930s, when something radical was going on, and I am particularly interested in that period. His usage of multiple writing styles is very modern. He was deliberately meditating on the past, and he's playing with his audiences and shocking them. But also, "Shunkin Sho" is a meditation on the nature of love. Maybe, that's why I chose it.

I quite understand that his writing was a kind of decadent art, or art for art's sake. But he deliberately drew contrasts with the modern world of his time while he meditated on that other world. He also tried to point out the sadism and masochism in the relationship between Shunkin and Sasuke.

There is no cast list yet — have you not decided on the actors?

In the novel, the character of Shunkin is represented in a number of quite complicated and contradictory ways, so she is not presented as being the same here as she is there. She is just not an ideal woman and she is quite unpleasant because she has suffered. Also, descriptions of her come from all sorts of different viewpoints. So it is unlikely that Shunkin will be represented by one actress. Equally, Sasuke must be represented by different-aged actors as the story unfolds. These are among our challenges, and in subsequent stagings of "Shunkin," the approaches may change because theater is a living art.

"Shunkin" runs from Feb. 21 till March 5 at Setagaya Public Theatre, a 2-min. walk from Sangenjaya Station on the Denentoshi or Setagaya lines (Feb. 21 to 25 are preview stagings). For more information call SEPT at (03) 5432-1526 or visit www.setagaya-pt.jp

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