Year of Shakespeare: Ninagawa’s Cymbeline in JapanAdaptationTragedyYear of Shakespeare

  • YuUmemiya

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


At the end of May Yukio Ninagawa’s Cymbeline was performed at the Barbican in London, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival. John Lavagnino saw it there and reviewed it for Year of Shakespeare, which you can read here. A few months before that Yu Umemiya saw it in Japan, and we are pleased to share his review with you now:


Cymbeline, dir. Yukio Ninagawa, 2 April 2012 at Sainokuni Saitama Art Theatre, in the Saitama prefecture (outside of Tokyo)

By Yu Umemiya, Waseda University

The main hall at the Saitama Geijyutu Theatre seats approximately 780 audience members. When compared to other famous commercial theatres in Tokyo, which hold a maximum of 1,300 people, the visibility for the audience at the Saitama Geijyutu Theatre auditorium was extremely well organized.
It was the second time that I have seen a play directed by Ninagawa. I had previously seen his collaborative work with the RSC about 10 years ago when he directed King Lear, starring Nigel Hawthorne. Presumably, since then, Ninagawa has developed his own style of representation. In terms of costume, Ninagawa combined the traditional Japanese “hakama” trousers with Western armor. Additionally, Ninagawa represented blood through the stylized use of vivid red strings which he adopted from his performance of Titus Andronicus. Since the actors were all Japanese, the invention of some level of stylization seemed effective. Even if we were to gather all the greatest actors in Japan, nobody in the audience would believe that they were native English speaking people, let alone Elizabethan or Jacobean. In other words, adding the element of the oriental enables the translated Shakespeare to fit into the Japanese stage. Therefore, Ninagawa’s style can be described as one which makes the audience feel that are observing fiction, whereas other directors generally aim for a realistic style.

The way in which Ninagawa chose to open the play seems to be connected to this point. At first, all of the actors were on stage preparing for the performance; they were dressing, warming up, and putting on makeup. After an announcement for security was made, all of the actors took off their long thick coats, revealing their costumes for the show. Another characteristic of Ninagawa’s directing style is not entering directly into the world of the story, but creating a middle ground. In Shakespeare in 12th Year of Tenpou Era, Ninagawa created an imitation of The Globe theatre on stage, and surrounded it with actors dressed in European costumes and blonde wigs. When the curtain was raised, carpenters dressed in Japanese costumes dismantle the Globe, and, by the time it was done, the actors had changed their costumes to ones that were Japanese in style. It was obvious that Ninagawa guided the audience from the real world, to the world of Shakespeare, and to the world of Tenpou. For Cymbeline, he guided from reality, to backstage and finally to the world of the play.

Ninagawa’s stage often gave me the impression of using the large acting space despite the fact that he has the tendency of incorporating numbers of enormous sets. In this Cymbeline, he constantly brought in various kinds of backdrops and restricted the space for the actors in the very front part of the stage. When I saw his famous statue of Roman wolves on stage, I could not help but laugh because I never imagined it would be used again. According to the programme, the statue appeared not only in Titus but also in his Antony and Cleopatra. From his continuous usage of the statue, it can be imagined that Ninagawa is aiming to create the image of Rome in his productions by showing the statue.

One feature that did not satisfy me was the backdrop with the painting from Japanese famous old story The Tale of Genji. It was used at the scene in Rome, together with the statue of the wolves. Obviously Jachimo sizes up the female in the scene, and if the audience knows that the painting is originally called “Evaluation during a Rainy Night”, the combination makes perfect sense. However, I doubt that the painting has such a level of recognition, even in Japan. I wonder how Ninagawa is going to use the effect when he brings the play over to London and New York. In contrast, the tall pine tree and sounds of a loud siren and wave that appeared in the closing scene were easy for me to understand. The siren and the wave not only represented the chaotic atmosphere during the war, but also the devastating catastrophe that hit Japan a year ago. A tall pine tree became well known after the earthquake because it stands at the beach in Rikuzuntakata city. The beach was famous for its beautiful tree line, but after the earthquake only one remained and now the tree symbolizes revival and is known throughout the entire country. This imagery is probably only recognizable to the Japanese, and might not be understood at first glance by a British or American audience, but it would be interesting to hear how they would interpret this scene.

Cymbeline might be a play without a strong main character, but the main role should possibly be attributed to either Posthumus or Imogen. The actor who played Imogen, Shinobu Ootake, demonstrated her acting ability when portraying the character of the distracted girl as in these moments her movements were extremely detailed and precise. As well as this, Hiroshi Abe, who played Postumus, should be praised for his incredible stage presence. When Abe was portraying a vengeful character his powerful acting gave me a positive impression. In addition to this, Masanobu Katumura (Cloten) and Koutaro Yoshida (Cymbeline) did justice to their roles. Both of these actors emerged from theatrical backgrounds, and their voices stood out from the rest. They not only impressed me with their loud shouting voices, but also with their subtle voices. Two secondary characters Guiderius (Kenji Urai) and Arviragus (Satoru Kawaguchi) need to be mentioned. As brothers they performed perfectly in tune with each other, and, since they both shared most of their stage with Belarius (Sagawa Tetsuroh), who also showed strong stage presence, their acting had to be equally strong.

To sum up the directorial characteristics, the stage was filled with features typical of Ninagawa, and the movement from one scene to the other was effectively maneuvered. The slow motion movement used in the battle scenes reminded me of similar choices made by other directors, but in such a long scene I think the moments when the characters insert lines should return to the normal speed rather than remaining in slow motion, in order to elevate the excitement of the audience. As I have noted, the production was not perfect, especially on the acting side that I have avoided to criticize in detail, but the standard was satisfactorily high, and made me realize the stable quality of Ninagawa’s productions compared to other Shakespearean productions in Japan.


Some responses to the production from audiences at the Barbican:

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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.