Theatre Review: Ninagawa Company – ‘Hamlet’ (Hamuretto) By William Shakespeare
Yukio Ninagawa directs his best-loved play!
Inspired as a celebration and appreciation of his involvement in International Relations, Ninagawa’s 80th birthday this year is being celebrated under the banner ‘Yukio Ninagawa – 80th Anniversary’ with, amongst other things, a return to London’s Barbican Theatre with his Ninagawa Company’s production of ‘Hamlet’ alongside ‘Kafka on the Shore’ both of which afterwards tour to New York, Singapore and Seoul. Unfortunately, having been recently struck down by illness, from which he is now thankfully recovering, Ninagawa is unable to travel abroad.
This is the eighth production of Hamlet directed by Ninagawa, two of which have previously been performed at the Barbican, in 1998 and 2004, and in his later years it is revealing that in his contribution to this production he comments, ‘I constantly ask myself ‘Who’s there?’, the first line of Hamlet. In doing this I am asking what will be left after the layers of life are peeled off like the skin of an onion. Hopefully it is more than nothing.’
As indicated by a screen projection prior to the start of the play the production played out on a set of 19th century wooden tenement buildings, a nod to the introduction of ‘Hamlet’ to Japan during the late Meiji Era (1868-1912) when ‘Hamlet’ was first introduced in Japanese translation in Japan with a Kabuki adaptation by the famous Kabuki playwright Kawatake Mokuami in 1903 and then in modern theatre form in 1911 by Bungei Kyōkai (Association of Literature). At the time when Japan was undergoing a particularly rapid programme of modernisation ‘Hamlet’ was extremely popular as part of the then lively development of Western style political dialogue and has been popular in Japan ever since.
There were a number of allusions included in the production provided by Japanese cultural references nuances of which are likely to have escaped the audience, perhaps even many Japanese spectators.
Potentially the use of the colour red in the costumes and the stage lighting; red is traditionally seen in Japanese folklore as the colour which expels devils and purifies.
Off to the side of the set were two statues of Jizo Bosatsu, the Japanese Buddhist protective deity of unborn children, which served as an altar, and possibly an oblique and very Japanese allusion to the ‘newborn babe’ in the later soliloquy of Claudius in Act III Scene III when Claudius begs, during his purification ritual, to be made able to ask for forgiveness – ‘Help, angels! Make assay! Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel, Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!’.
In addition to which was the use of Kabuki elements in the play within the play; the traditional Kabuki curtain of black, green and persimmon stripes and the use of traditional wooden tsuke clappers.
To indicate their rank in the re-enactment portrayed in the play within the play the characters were seated on stepped platforms reminiscent of the platforms used for Japanese dolls dressed in Heian dynasty attire which are displayed during the Hina Matsuri Doll Festival, also referred to as the Girl’s Festival. Dolls which, during the Heian Period, were used as substitutes to purify pollution and evil influences which has its origins in Shintō katashiro rituals where they acted as bodily substitutes for the deceased. All these were very relevant to some key elements in the plot which, in mirroring those of all human lives, attempted to allude to the transience of life, mercy, the purification of evil, and human beings as puppets playing out their fate, which for the benefit of those perhaps not in the know could have been included as programme notes for ‘Hamlet’.
Tatsuya Fujiwara, who first appeared in a Ninagawa’s production Shintoku-Maru at the Barbican in 1997 at the age of 15, is probably better known to a younger Japanese audience as Shishio Makoto from the Rurōnin Kenshin films. Some 18 years later at the age of 33 he appears this production in the central role of Hamlet which was admirably performed as were the portrayal of the ghost of Hamlet’s father and Claudius, both played by Mikijiro Hira.
The stand out performance was definitely that of Ophelia, played by Hikari Mitsushima, the portrayal of Ophelia’s descent into madness exceptional.
The confrontation between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude (played by the Takarazuka star Ran Ohtori) lacked subtly being somewhat histrionic.
The main concern with this production, as with most Japanese productions of Shakespeare, was that the Japanese cultural references were lost in their translation to a Japanese milieu. However, apart from those occasional un-elucidated potential oblique Japanese cultural reference the costumes, lighting and set were pitched just right, the play an overall success albeit one with which could do with, in some small part, some further development. Congratulations! …and a very happy birthday year to Ninagawa!
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.