Before I begin this article, I must say that I was initially tasked to write a piece based on another theatre production which I had seen recently. However, immediately after finishing Shun Kin, I told Suhuai, the editor of this journal, that I couldn’t do it. I had to write a piece on Shun Kin in order to consolidate all my thoughts, which has been very overwhelming.
To start of, if I had to describe Shun Kin in one word, it would be impeccable.
Shun Kin tells the simple story of a sadomasochistic love. I could not determine if it was essentially the most tragic, or most beautiful love story set in the 19th century. To strip it down, this is a story about Sasuke, a man servant, and his infatuation with Shun Kin, a lady of an upper class background who had a perverted sense of romance.
On a night when the lady of the household discovered Sasuke’s passion for the shamisen, it was the start of his intricate love story with Shun Kin. Shun Kin subsequently became Sasuke’s mentor, and also took to fancy the joy of dominating Sasuke in her relationship with him, be it sexually or psychologically. In the course of their unusual relationship, she never officially acknowledged her love for him. Yet, when Sasuke was 50 years old, he voluntarily blinded himself so as not to see Shun Kin’s disfigured face, a fate she suffered due to a run-in she had with someone because of her temperament. Sasuke’s love for Shun Kin never ended, so much so that even when Shun Kin passed away, he had her in his fantasies, where he continued chatting and imagined her company. In the end, he died on the same day as her and the two of them were buried next to each other, for eternity.
To a layman, perhaps all the sacrifices Sasuke made for Shun Kin seemed unusual in light of her treatment towards him, but it also deeply reveals how giving one can be when it comes to matters of the heart. It is in this tragic tale that we see the irrationally of the human condition – that we often cannot explain adequately our actions, especially when it relates to our emotional wants and desires. And it is also precisely why this tale lives on as one of the most beautiful tales of a man’s unconditional love.
However, beyond this story, what is equally stunning is the artistic team’s dedication to the craft of theatre making. Simon McBurney, in my opinion, thoroughly showcased his faith in his own craft. The stage devices were not gimmicky; neither was it intended to “wow” the audience with groundbreaking stunts or newfound aesthetics. In my opinion, he didn't leave a single consideration for these criteria. What came out of this performance was an honest, direct and brave telling of a narrative that was not set out to impress. Not only was he only concerned with his craft, the team of actors involved in this production was doing so as well. The synchronized movements, the simple choreography, and the delivery of the text were done to perfection. Even the physicality and physique of the actors, particularly that of the many Sasukes, told a story that accentuated the narrative.
Simon McBurney also certainly spared no effort in letting us know that there is no need for haste in this production, thereby manifesting his faith in his own craft once again. As I watch the production unfold gracefully in a linear narrative interweaved with the story of a voiceover artist, the no-frills, clean, and neat aesthetics of Shun Kin enthralled me. And to me, all these could only be done because the artistic and production team had confidence in their work. It was a deep-seated, quiet, and unwavering confidence that allowed them to fully dedicate their efforts to bringing alive the story of Shun Kin. And all these led to a work that was deeply rooted and visceral.
And this brings me to my next point.
At the end of the show, I felt ashamed. When the backdrop went up on me, revealing the shadows of the actors, I could not help but feel that the scene was mocking me, laughing at my rather incompetent views towards my own creation process. Having only recently started out in playwriting, I was constantly searching ways to bring my writing to the next personal level. I would read academic journals, plays, or have discussions with other practitioners, all in the hope of bringing something fresh and new to the table so that I would not feel like an entity that did not value add to the community.
I had the baggage of our local theatre history as a burden upon me. There was constantly this desire to find the next form/structure/technique that would be current and redefining, at least for me, as a writer. Questions like - “How do I connect with the audience more? How do I prove my mettle? How do I make myself relevant to this industry?” often plagued me. And I balked at the idea of a simple, linear narrative, thinking that it was predictable, old-fashioned and completely useless in the already burgeoning state of the local theatre scene. I was interested to find something fresh, something relevant, something that would allow one to validate my own writing upon witnessing it.
How wrong was I.
I forgot that sometimes, in simplicity and honesty, we tell a better story than all the frills that we think would be effective devices in validating our craft. And perhaps, it is not about the structure, nor the form; it’s about the dedication to your craft, your intention to tell a story, to serve a purpose, and ultimately digging deeper into that craft you firmly believe in. And to be honest, going along with the production tonight, it is not about the desire to be current, novel or fresh. From tonight’s viewing, I felt that there was absolutely nothing new about Shun Kin. Yet it was the genuine commitment the company has held on to which has allowed it to present a work that cuts beyond these shallow objectives. It is a sense of integrity that a theatre maker, who I see myself as, should hold on to in the face of a growing arts scene. With growth often comes much mediocrity in the mix as well. Often, we get obsessed with our own personal KPIs (key performance indexes), our baggage, our insecurities and the competitive nature of this industry that we forget something rather important – and that is to be loyal to our craft. We forget what has been the unwavering spine of our process, our intention, and choose to depart from looking deeper in the darker recesses of this important faith towards our craft, where it would then allow us to create a more meaningful work.
Shun Kin very much reminded me that it is in the shadows of places we have not dug deep that we will find renewed revelations and light to guide our journey. And to be honest, tonight, I didn’t cry at the show. Neither did I give a standing ovation at the end of it.
But tonight, I felt the undercurrents and all the feelings a great production would leave you with. It wasn’t anything massively impressive or overwhelming, but it was something which was understated, something quiet, kind of like a blood transfusion process – unnoticeable, but very much integral to give you a new lease of life.
And as I sat quietly in my room, with the small study lamp lit at the corner of my study table, I am humbled by this theatrical experience which has redefined my perspectives in so many ways which scripts, books, journals would never be able to. And as I type this article out right after the show, I gently weep, embarrassed by how ill informed my outlooks on my artistic pursuits have been. It has been a revelation, a light in a time where I am having much uncertainty in my writing process.
Thank you for the experience. It has definitely been an unforgettable moment.
Continue reading on Issue 3 / July 2013:Tradition and Modernity