I was very pleased to be in the audience last night to catch one performance of the short run – just 4 performances – of the British theatre company Complicite’s visit to Ann Arbor. This was a return engagement to this company for me, as I saw a previous (and also Japanese themed work) of theirs in 2004 in London, plus another more classically themed piece that year, and had the good fortune of working with an early troupe member in a physical theatre class that fall.
I’m also interested to note that this performance is a long running hit of sorts for Complicite, having first been seen in 2009 and (presumably, based on the photos) featuring most of the same actors in the current run. Ann Arbor is one of only three US stops for this tour.
The show itself was classic Complicite, using light, sound, bold imagery and subtle movement (and many other things) to tell the story of Shun-kin, a privleged Japanese woman who becomes entangled with her student, Sasuke, in multiple ways. I don’t want to spell the basic plot out further, except to note that it was inspired by a Japanese folktale and bookended, in a way, by contemporary scenes featuring a female narrator recounting the story for a radio broadcast. The modern angle could have been used just as a framing device, but instead it recurred throughout the story, most intriguingly taking center stage at what would be an intermission point – but there was no intermission and the story went right on.
Complicite is known for their technical virtuosity and this production was no slouch in that department. However, at times I questioned the decision to have subtitles displayed right alongside the staging of the performance. It’s true that there was no other way to handle it, where the actors spoke in Japanese, but the decision forced me to divide my attention between the acting onstage and the subtitles of the story displayed on both sides and above the stage area. A bolder (but unlikely) choice would have been to have no subtitles displayed at all and force the audience member to engage with the production through other senses.
I’m losing my train of thought, so should probably stop here, but in concluson, this was one of the most memorable theatre productions I’ve seen in the last couple of years, simply by engaging with style and energy into an unusual story that held me riveted with attention and impressed with the level of detailed storytelling it was happy to unspool for a deserving audience.