Voices: Mark Down

Feature in Issue 21-2 | Summer 2009

Mark Down of Blind Summit Theatre sheds light on their collaboration with Simon McBurney in Complicite’s Shun-Kin.

It started with a casual phone message. Are Nick and I free tomorrow to meet? [Blind Summit Theatre is led by Nick Barnes and Mark Down.] Simon McBurney was charming, we drank coffee, he showed us a strange book of Japanese mannequins, we discussed Japanese aesthetics, the darker side of the human brain, the odd aspects of Japanese sexuality – vending machines selling schoolgirls’ knickers and whatever – and that was it, he said ‘see you next week’– we were working with him.

Shun-Kin used two texts by Japanese writer Tanizaki as a starting point. One was A Portrait of Shunkin; the other In Praise of Shadows, in which ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ are seen to represent Western and Asian cultures. In Tanizaki’s view, the West is continuously searching for light and clarity; oriental art and literature favour shadow and subtlety.

Simon went off and left me with the Japanese cast for a week! Having started off the process, he left me alone to workshop ideas. I came in and had everything – stage managers, designers, cast, translators – and I thought, ‘Wow, this is great!’

Puppetry is a marriage of design with performance.

I took in some puppets, and some arms and legs and heads. I just did what Blind Summit do – play. The puppets were ones we had used in our show Mr China’s Son.

Whatever you take into the room gets cast – so Blind Summit puppets are a bit like actors, they get to play a variety of roles.

It’s good working with pre-made puppets. Because what it looks like is imposed, what you do is determined by what you use to do it.

Shun-Kin herself is part-woman part-child. She evolved from the child puppet in Madama Butterfly [Blind Summit created the puppetry for Anthony Minghella’s acclaimed opera production], and from a character called Qiyan in Mr China’s Son. She has the head of a child and the body of a woman.

Simon fell in love with her. He’s not the first to fall in love with a puppet girl…

The only principle of Complicite is to turn up. Then, whatever happens, happens.

I sit and watch the actors play. I give people almost no instructions. Eventually something odd and interesting happens (often it’s a ‘mistake’, something falls over for example) and I say, ‘let’s go with that’. When you have a good idea, you know it – when it’s bad, you just move on.

There’s a hundred thousand ways to solve any one problem. Working in collaboration, you find ways that you might not have found on your own.

You have to hold your own and be prepared to argue your case with Simon. If I left him on his own with it for a day, he’d change things. So I made sure I was there all the time!

Two people, two heads, two ideas on how to do everything! But in many ways it is easy having a director and a puppet director work together. Simon is at the point in his life where it is probably a great relief to have someone who can be told ‘you take this part of it off my hands’. I am able to say, ‘you look after the story, and I’ll look after the puppetry’.

Nothing gets fixed, everything is flux. The great thing with Complicite is that what you do on the last day of rehearsal is the same as what you do on the first day: play, improvise, do things, change things…

People thought they knew what to expect from Complicite these days and this production threw them. I feel that Shun-Kin has taken Complicite back to its heart – ‘the body’ rather than ‘new technology’. The elemental forces, live music…

There’s never a finished product with Complicite. I remember one night sitting in the auditorium with Simon who was talking through the show, still saying what should change. We got some tuts from our neighbours.

Complicite’s Shun-kin, directed by Simon McBurney, opened with a short sell-out run in Tokyo in February 2008. It was then performed January-February 2009 at the Barbican, London, and in March 2009 at Setagaya Public Theatre, Tokyo. Co-produced by Complicite, Setagaya Public Theatre and barbicanbite09, London. www.complicite.org

A special note on Shun-Kin from Mark Down: ‘Nigoshichi Shimouma, who played Old Sasuke in the London revival, died suddenly from cancer in April shortly after the run in Tokyo finished. He was wonderful to work with and we will remember him fondly.’

Blind Summit Theatre are led by Mark Down, actor and director, and Nick Barnes, designer and puppet maker.

Their current repertoire of ‘new plays with puppets for adult audiences’ includes Low Life, which has had many successful runs at BAC (where they were supported artists 2003-2004), at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and on numerous tours throughout the UK and worldwide.

Previous collaborations have included On Emotion (with On Theatre for Soho Theatre), Faeries (with Will Tuckett for the Royal Opera House); and Madama Butterfly (with Anthony Minghella/ENO/New York Met). Madama Butterfly returns to ENO, London 10 June - 10 July 2009.

Their latest collaboration is His Dark Materials, which premiered March–April 2009 at Birmingham Rep, and now tours nationally until June 2009. Based on the books by Phillip Pullman, adapted by Nicholas Wright, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, with puppetry design and direction by Blind Summit.

The company are currently working on an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, with Annie Siddons and BAC.

www.blindsummit.com

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