People always comment on Shakespeare’s incredible productivity, but director Yukio Ninagawa surely deserves to be right up there with him — at least in terms of hard work.
In the last three months alone, I have seen two of his productions: in May, his uneven staging of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 drama “A Streetcar Named Desire”; and in June, his masterly version of Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus Rex.” Meanwhile, he recently announced his next filmmaking venture — a horror movie, “Aoi Hono (Blue Flame),” scheduled for release in spring next year.
Ninagawa’s latest project is a reworking of one of the most successful productions in his repertoire, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (by accident or design, not “A Midsummer’s-Night Dream,” as the original is titled).
His first “Dream” was staged in 1994 at Tokyo’s Benisan Pit Studio. The following year, the play toured England, where it played the provincial cities of Plymouth and Newcastle. Having been fe^ted by both England’s theatergoers and media, Ninagawa again took the “Dream” to England in 1996, where it played in London at the Mermaid Theatre.
At that time, Kate Stratton wrote in London’s Time Out magazine:
“Those who like Shakespeare decked out with lavish stage pictures will automatically warm to the Ninagawa Company’s breathtakingly spectacular ‘Dream.’ Yukio Ninagawa has acquired a towering reputation for transforming the classics to storybook splendor and visual magic . . . a sumptuous fusion of East and West.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was Ninagawa’s first production of a Shakespeare comedy; he had made his name as a director of Shakespeare in the 1980s with widely admired Oriental-style stagings of “Macbeth” (1980) and “The Tempest” (1987). This “Dream,” too, is full of his innovative and insightful touches.
The setting is not a fairy wood but a Zen stone garden — a symbol of the cosmos — with the stage covered in white sand. Sand also falls from above the stage, evoking a waterfall, while occasionally roses rain down gently for minutes on end, an effect both beautiful and hauntingly mysterious.
In this stone-garden world, Puck — acted by Lin Yungbian — does not fly through the air but jumps athletically from rock to rock, spinning around them and often disappearing under the stage and reappearing from below. Lin was schooled in Chinese traditional theater, kyogeki, which is famous for its acrobatic movement. Puck’s lines are narrated by the Japanese actor Yoji Matsuda, a role division that works well as it allows Lin to perform stunts freely while Matsuda speaks clearly from the side of the stage.
Not content with splitting his fairy in two in this way, though, Ninagawa sometimes brings Matsuda center stage, too, along with other Pucks — at one point there were no fewer than five of this magical character present at once!
This clever Puckery notwithstanding, the most impressive aspect of this production is its visual flair. Ninagawa, 66, first hoped to be a painter before turning to the stage. He shows his artistic eye here not only in the design of the set, but also in the cast’s exquisite costumes.
The cast, too, has been chosen with skill. Some actors have been playing their roles since the production was first staged, and wear them as comfortably as their gorgeous kimono. Kazuko Shiraishi’s Titania is as sexy as she was in Ninagawa’s first “Dream,” in 1994, even though she’s now middle-aged. Shiraishi is obviously the star of this production, her vocal expressiveness — and that of Matsuda — is unforgettable.
With the help of his talented cast, Ninagawa cuts straight to the heart of this drama, Shakespeare’s disturbingly objective take on the absurdity of human life — and love. Just as Oberon and Titania are amused and enthralled as they watch the play performed for them by the woodland folk, we, the audience watch this warm, entertaining production and learn from what we see on stage.
This “Dream” is as captivating as it was when it was first staged eight years ago. With his by-now characteristic Oriental take on Shakespeare, Ninagawa brings a truly fresh approach to this most beloved of the Bard’s dramas.
Neither this director — nor this playwright — can be judged from just one of the works in his repertoire. But with Ninagawa already embarked on a staging of the entire Shakespeare canon at the Saitama Arts Center where he is artistic director, there’ll be many more opportunities to enjoy this most exciting of writer-director combinations.