Hamlet @TOHO cinemas, Shinjuku, Japan, 2015Tragedy

  • YuUmemiya

Hamlet, TOHO cinemas Shinjyuku. 6th Nov, 2015

Reviewed by Yu Umemiya


Recently, Japan seems to have signed up for the contract with the National Theatre Live and is gradually showing the productions from England. Several years ago, MET Live started in some cinemas in Tokyo, and I believe broadcasting overseas performances is becoming one of the means of entertainment even in this far eastern country. The screening of the well-talked about Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch as a title role, just having finished its performance on 31st October at the Barbican Theatre, London, took place in 4 cinemas in Tokyo (Nihonbashi, Roppongi, Shibuya and Shinjyuku), prior to its broadcasting in 2016. It was quite an extraordinary experience to see a play on a gigantic flat screen (or slightly curved) with 500 seats, filled with people eating popcorn and drinking beer. Nevertheless, being able to sit in a show which has been sold out almost a year before the opening by spending only about 20 pounds (3500 yen) seems to be a privilege.

The production was filled with new interpretations and features to show yet another different intake of Hamlet to the modern audience. It started with the ordinary line ‘Who’s there?’, but delivered by Hamlet, followed by a brief reunion with Horatio (Leo Bill). This suggests that it deleted almost the entire first sequence and moved on to the Coronation scene. By the time we reached act 1, scene 4, it was clear that the production had decided to conflate scene 1 and scene 4, also combining or exchanging lines between Horatio, Marcellus (Dwane Walcott), and Barnardo (Dan Parr). It was an interesting directorial decision and effective execution especially with the scene where Hamlet questions the three about their encounter with the ghost of his father. However, this resulted in the expansion of the role of the two sentinels and reduced Horatio’s significance, or should I say, the close friendship between Hamlet and his favorite schoolfellow. The shift of image of such an important character as Horatio made the very last scene of the play rather unconvincing. No matter how much Horatio tried to show his remorse for losing Hamlet, his lack of presence in the story hindered his ability to deliver these sentiments.

Another interesting decision from the production is that it placed the most well-known ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy by Hamlet differently from the arrangement of all Q1, Q2 and F1. In this production, the soliloquy came right after Fishmonger scene, followed by the news delivered back to Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) from Voltemand (Morag Siller). And after the King settled the matter with Norway, we witnessed the Nunnery scene with Ophelia (Sian Brooke). This new editing may be triggered by the fact that Hamlet indeed talks about life and death in a comical way with Polonius (Jim Norton) in the Fishmonger scene, but it was rather surprising to see how the production casually threw away the world’s most famous lines in English literature.

As I have mentioned above, the show included conflation or exchange of lines, and it also incorporated the technique of repetition to enhance the importance of some of the words within the play. For example, ‘O villain, villain, smiling damned villain’, which should be delivered once in act 1, scene 5, right after Hamlet’s meeting with the ghost, appeared twice in the production: once in the rehearsal with the actor where Hamlet tells the main role how to act, and again at the play-within-a-play. In addition, when Ophelia appears distracted on stage in the second half of the play, she cites from Hamlet’s letter ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’, Polonius’s saying ‘to thine own self be true’, and her own response to Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), ‘’Tis in my memory locked’. Especially the repetition practiced by Ophelia worked well to express her insane but nostalgic state.

One of the most distinctive images from the production was that they projected the cracking of a window at the back of a wall on stage to suggest that Denmark was collapsing like a fragile glass. And following this vivid projection, triggered by Claudius’s delivering of his lines to plead to England to execute Hamlet, blasting wind came in from all directions with a huge amount of dust. It was a strong ending right before the interval that allowed us to prepare for the ominous story to come. In addition, the dust-, ash-, and mud-covered stage used for the second half corresponded well with this effect. The scene that resumed after the interval was the one where Hamlet has his conversation with Fortinbras’s (Sergo Vares) soldier, and here the piled up mud is a perfect image for a warzone. It was obvious that the scenery would not match the extravagant court that appeared in the first half, but when the stage was lit, the place seemed as if it was hit by a flood, a perfect expression of the once prosperous, now ruined royal palace. It must have been an astonishing sight to witness this type of stage design live. Picking up on this point, I have to say that screening a theatre production will always come with effects and defects.

Since the sounds on stage are collected by the microphones placed somewhere in the auditorium, most of the voices were equally audible. This should be a good feature when the production is filled with actors who do not have enough volume to deliver the whole lines. However, this will delete the delicate differentiation between the normal voice and the whispering. The howling voice can be heard as it should be, but the small adjustment or the production’s attention to detail can be easily misunderstood by recording, especially when the sound systems occasionally malfunction and strangely switch the recording spots.

Another noticeable disadvantage of seeing a play through a screen is that you find it difficult to observe the whole picture of the space. As I have mentioned, the grand effect of projection or a reenactment of the storm work most effectively when we are able to judge how grand they are. It is also rather troublesome to sense the energy from the actor, because we cannot actually see whether he or she is running around the stage or simply moving at one spot. In other words, we look at the scene in a way that the director or the filmmaker wants us to do. Nonetheless, this decision should not always be considered a defect.

Thanks to the modern high definition camera, we can witness the detail of a tear running down the actor’s cheek, or even the change of the texture inside the eyes which is just about to burst into tears. These details of fine acting, realised on stage by fine actors, might be hard to notice from a far distance. Taking the gesture of Ophelia, for example, her movement of face and hands were rather distracting in the first act, because they moved so rapidly and frequently. Maybe this impression will not emerge if it is seen from a distant seat. But when we endure it until the time we reach her madness, it sparkled as one of the most touching physical actions within the play. Her maddening state was extraordinary, convincingly delivered through all the gestures and complexions she made, and when she left the stage in the end, climbing up the pile of black dust towards the light, it caused a picturesque effect which elevated this tragic scene to another level.

All in all, the production was worth praising and it surely has a great deal of significance to be broadcast in Japan. As I noticed, the recent early modern productions are changing their trend from simplistic stages to grand decorative shows. The most current shift is that they are starting to incorporate new materials on to the stage, such as water or mud. We have seen some productions in the past which have created rain or a stream of sand coming from the ceiling down to the floor. However, modern productions literally place sand, water, and mud allowing the audience to actually feel that they are observing a real scene without heightening their imagination. The 2010 Old Vic theatre production of The Tempest, directed by Sam Mendes, had a round shaped sand pool in the middle of the stage with a strangely moving crystal ball. This stage design made us realise the mysterious atmosphere surrounding the magical story of the play. The 2015 Royal Shakespeare Company Othello, by Iqbal Khan, created a Venetian canal, and the splashing water corresponded well especially with the emotional instability of the protagonist. Japanese productions also practice grand theatre effects but the staging area is mostly untouched and they lack three-dimensional appeal to the audience, sadly enhanced by the proscenium arch structure within a huge auditorium. Being able to witness the present intake of the early modern plays, even through a cinema screen, should give a long-awaited opportunity to directors in Japan to be inspired yet again by European trends and standards.



Author: YuUmemiya

Yu Umemiya is an alumnus of the Shakespeare Institute and a current PhD student at Waseda University. He lectures at Toyo University and Yokohama National University and is an Assistant Director with Half-moon Theatre Company.