Theatrical history in the making

by Nobuko Tanaka

This production is the stuff of theater history: Don’t miss it. That, essentially, is all that needs to be said about the miraculous new staging of “Pericles” by Yukio Ninagawa.

Last Thursday the director and Thelma Holt, the producer who introduced him to British audiences with the “Ninagawa Macbeth” of 1987, gave a pre-performance talk at the Sainokuni Saitama Arts Center, at which they explained how “Pericles” came to be the 12th Shakespeare play that Ninagawa has staged for the SSAC (he aims to stage the entire canon of 37 plays).

It was, they said, at the invitation of Trevor Nunn, the outgoing Artistic Director of the National Theatre in London. Nunn, who leaves his post March 31, wanted to see how Ninagawa would deal with this drama on which so many directors have come unstuck. Nunn himself apparently confessed to not feeling up to tackling “Pericles.”

Holt at one point declared that “Ninagawa is one of few directors in the world, who knows the key to dealing with Shakespeare plays,” adding, intriguingly, that he directs well — “but not as well as the play itself.” Ninagawa modestly added that “Pericles” is a play that only comes into its own in performance.

When the curtain rose one hour later, Holt and Ninagawa were both triumphantly proved right. This is a universal and inspired “Pericles.”

A play from Shakespeare’s later years, “Pericles” is a romance that tells of the dire travails of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, who is sustained only by his hope and faith as he struggles to reunite his family. The play begins darkly, when Pericles discovers a secret, incestuous love between the king of Antioch and his daughter, whose suitor Pericles is. Fleeing Antioch, Pericles is shipwrecked on the shores of Pentapolis. Taken in by a noble family, he falls in love with the daughter, Thaisa, and they marry.

Their happiness does not last. Pericles and his wife embark for Antioch after learning of the king’s death. Thaisa is believed dead after giving birth to a daughter, Marina, during the voyage, and another shipwreck casts Pericles and his newborn daughter ashore in a strange land.

Adventures ensue, with the saintly Marina at one point being sent to a brothel — where she proceeds to convince customers of the errors of their ways. Finally, though, fate leads to an emotional family reunion.

In this staging, the opening is all devastation. The stage is strewn with skulls and broken pipes, there is a din of bullets and bombs, then water starts gushing from the pipes. It is a timeless spectacle of the horror of war — or perhaps a vision of Iraq, within weeks. Wounded actors make their way through the auditorium to the stage, where they treat their wounds and then line up and bow to the audience as if signaling the start of the play, which the narrator, Gower, then begins to tell.

Unlike Shakespeare, Ninagawa uses two Gowers, who sometimes explain the story while playing a biwa (Japanese lute) and at other times narrate with the aid of bunraku puppets. Indeed, Ninagawa draws deeply from the Japanese theater, including kabuki-like stage sets and costumes, to achieve a magnificent effect that is neither Western nor Eastern.

Masaaki Uchino’s enthusiastic Pericles is a pleasure to watch, but outstanding are the inventive performances by Kayoko Shiraishi (Gower, Dionyza and the brothel owner) and Masachika Ichimura (Gower, Simonides, Lysimachus and Cleon). And no review would be complete without deferring to the genius of Yuko Tanaka, back on stage as both Thaisa and Marina after a long interval spent doing film and TV work.

These days, with the fear of war and terrorism on everyone’s minds, it’s not surprising that many people seek solace in fantasy, and that cinemas are besieged for showings of “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” Ninagawa, however, has created just that kind of grand fantasy on stage with no assistance from computer graphics, relying only on the virtuoso alchemy of his own technique, his superb cast and the magic of Shakespeare. Live before our eyes and each time unique, this is an inspirational, imaginative experience.

More than that, it’s something approaching a miracle. Do see it if you can — and stand by for it to be a sensation on the West End stage, too.