This is Yukio Ninagawa’s eighth production of Hamlet and it’s on tour in the year of his eightieth birthday although this year, for the first time, he is too ill to travel with his own show. This also marks the thirtieth anniversary of Ninagawa’s first visit to the UK with the ‘cherry blossom’ Macbeth which was performed in Edinburgh in 1985 and then came to London in 1987. Macbeth introduced British audiences to a Japanese theatre tradition through a well-known play just as Ninagawa introduced his Japanese audience to Shakespeare through some recognisable visual references.
Setsu Asakura and Tsukasa Nakagoshi’s set is a courtyard of wooden Japanese houses with windows and sliding doors. A balcony runs round all three sides of the set, where the ghost walks in the first scene and Fortinbras arrives in the last, and two small gods are set stage left draped in zigzag shinto shide where Claudius prays and washes himself in the chapel scene. A chandelier flies in to indicate indoor scenes and the sounds of birds and insects indicate outdoors.
Ninagawa has set the play in the late nineteenth century when Japan was opening up to the west, both commercially and culturally, and there is a sense, in his production, of transition from the old world to the new. The costume designer, Ayako Maeda, has dressed older characters like Claudius and Polonius in full-length, formal robes but the younger ones, like Hamlet and Horatio, while still in robes, have modern, western touches like lapels on their jackets. Later, when Hamlet is banished to England, we hear the sound of the turboprop aeroplane which will take him there to add to the feeling of old meets new and east meets west.
Set changes are minimal and Ninagawa relies on Motoi Hattori’s lighting to transform the space. He uses a lot of general colour wash across the stage, red for Claudius and Gertrude, blue for the ghost, with the actors picked out in white pin spots and clouds of haze to catch the light and at other times he paints strips, grids and boxes of light on the stage to redefine the playing space. Masahiro Inoue’s soundscape, all pre-recorded, no live music here, is, like the costumes, a mixture of east and west mixing Japanese percussion with western synthesisers.
The cast of twenty-five, while still large, is well short of the lavish spectacle with which Ninagawa made his reputation (his 1978 Hamlet had a cast of seventy-seven). But, while this is a handsome and well-acted production, I’m not sure it told me anything about the play I didn’t already know. I think Kurosawa’s film, Ran, is one of the best versions of King Lear I’ve ever seen so I suppose I was hoping for something similar with Ninagawa’s Hamlet, a new perspective on something I thought I already knew, but while I admired the physical precision of the actors’ movement and I enjoyed small, unfamiliar touches like the cast bowing to acknowledge the audience before the play begins (why don’t we do that? We should) I was mainly struck by how western it was.
In a 2002 interview in The Japan Times Ninagawa said ‘the only reason I resort to Japanese or Japanese modes of expression is because I want Japanese audiences to understand my work [I’m not] using these symbols for the benefit of foreign audiences’. Ninagawa’s japonisme has declined over the years to the point where I’m not sure what an English-speaking audience gets from this because, when stripped of its oriental exoticism, this is a very conservative production. The joke about not being able to tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern apart is far from new, putting Horatio in glasses to show he’s a student and Ophelia in a white dress to indicate virginity are familiar as are the camp Osric, the headstrong Laertes and the kindly but foolish Polonius. The Freudian, Oedipal closet scene may have been provocative and revelatory when Tyrone Guthrie did it with Laurence Olivier in 1937 but now it feels more like an acting tradition than an original and authentic response to the text.
There are some striking and effective moments; the tiered hinamatsuri staging of The Mousetrap is gorgeous and Fortinbras’s blue-flagged invasion of Elsinore works well but these are rare innovations in a production notable for its respect, not only for the play but for its western performance tradition too.