An all-star cast — but if only they’d let ‘Hamlet’ be

by Nobuko Tanaka

As the Beckham typhoon swept through Japan last week, so Japan’s theater world was taken by storm by its biggest event of the year to date.

In part, too, this is another Anglo phenomenon, being Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” directed by Englishman Jonathan Kent, the former co-artistic director of the Almeida Theater in London. But what really set theatergoers’ pulses racing was the fact that he was staging this most famous of the Bard’s tragedies with kyogen superstar, 37-year-old Mansai Nomura, in the title role at Setagaya Public Theater, where he is the newly appointed artistic director.

Theatergoers here were agape at the prospect of Kent’s all-male “Hamlet,” with not only Nomura in its lineup, but also two famed female impersonators — Eisuke Sasai from the contemporary drama world, and oyama Shinobu Nakamura from the rarefied realm of kabuki. And as if that wasn’t enough, these players were teamed with the renowned Shakespearean actors Kotaro Yoshida (Claudius), Masane Tsukayama (Ghost, Player King, Gravedigger) and Haruhiko Jo (Polonius) — all backed by an English technical crew led by set and costume designer Paul Brown, 2001 winner of both the prestigious Critics Circle and Evening Standard awards.

With a dream team like that, it wasn’t surprising that expectations for this production had reached giddy proportions long before curtain-up, with not only theatergoers but the media imagining how brilliant this “Hamlet” would be. (Tickets for the five-week run sold out long ago — though SEPT is still offering standing room if you look sharp.)

But as Real Madrid — Beckham’s new club — showed in the Champions League last season, a dream team on paper can fail to gel when it counts.

So was this to be a brilliant “Hamlet” — or was it not to be? Everything seemed set for brilliance. Shoichiro Kawai, one of Japan’s foremost Shakespeare scholars and translators (and the author of several books about “Hamlet,” including 2001′s award-winning “Hamlet wa Futtote Ita [Hamlet Was Fat]“), had produced an eagerly-anticipated new translation. In numerous interviews before the June 17 opening night, Nomura made it clear that he and Kent were aiming to create a Hamlet quite different from the norm; one more mature and virile than the conventionally portrayed young Prince of Denmark, who is mother-fixated, irresolute and riddled with self-doubt. In particular, he said, the two of them perceived Hamlet’s distress less as profound ennui and more as a practical matter of how to accomplish his revenge against his uncle Claudius, who killed his father then married his mother, Gertrude.

Interestingly, Nomura also wrote at length about his opinion of Hamlet in “Shakespeare ga Waraku (Understand Shakespeare),” a special edition AERA book published in 1999. In his article titled “Kyogen to Shakespeare (Kyogen and Shakespeare),” he wrote, “I believe Hamlet is not only a troubled youth, but he is also restricted by the responsibility he bears as the Prince of Denmark. I found this similar to my responsibility as a successor in a long line of traditional kyogen artists.”

In this article, he also compared the way he was constantly observed by his kyogen master (his father, Mansaku Nomura) to the way Hamlet’s father watches over his son. This, he called a “fifth-dimension eye, an invisible eye that only Hamlet can feel.”

Given this interpretation of Hamlet’s character, from the moment the curtain rose at SEPT, there was no doubting that Nomura’s Hamlet was not only a wise and confident prince, but also an ambitious one full of vigor. For example, when Hamlet catches sight of the noble, manly Norwegian prince Fortinbras leading an army to attack the Poles, we sense him puffing out his princely Danish chest as he identifies with such gallantry and glory.

Forsooth, ’tis not quite the pithy Hamlet we have come to know — and more’s the pity.

It’s the same all the way through. This Hamlet is so motivated, confident and intent on his course of action that he’s forever irritated that his desires aren’t realized. Things continue in this vein right up to our hero’s last gasp.

So what we have here is “Hamlet” as the story of an unlucky prince who falls victim to the tide of history — to outside forces, rather than demons within. Certainly, this is one interpretation of this drama, but — call me old-fashioned — “Hamlet” seems to make more sense as a story of a sensitive youth’s struggle to comprehend and cope with the awful complexities of the human condition. As such, “Hamlet” has been a living drama in the hearts of countless millions for hundreds of years.

That’s not to say Shakespeare is best revered as if in some kind of 17th-century aspic. Peter Brook’s “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” which played at SEPT just two years ago, for example, gave us a Prince of Denmark who was far from being a wimp, though philosophically inclined.

So how does this production play out on the stage?

In terms of visual presentation, the answer is “rather beautifully.” As the play opens in the darkened theater, we see a painted wooden box that stands the full height of the stage. (Brown writes in the program that this represents a “box of curiosity,” an ornamental item commonly found in wealthy Elizabethan households.) On the front of the box are nine symbols drawn from the story of “Hamlet” — including Death, Mother and Poison — and throughout the play the sides of the box are opened up like folding screens by black-clad kuroko-style stage hands, revealing different images complementing the scenes. Sometimes the box is used as a castle tower, sometimes it is unfolded to reveal a gorgeous vermilion background with a single golden tree, representing a palace garden, or again, it becomes Ophelia’s room with display cases full of Japanese dolls.

Such beauty (carried through with the kimono-style costumes) is, according to Brown, deliberately gorgeous to represent the richness of Hamlet’s “pretended world” — which is in stark contrast to the bleakness of Elsinore Castle and its mostly craven inhabitants.

Amid all these marvelously depicted contradictions, though, Nomura’s Hamlet keeps things together all the way through. His family’s relationships are falling apart all around him — though quite why is something of a mystery.

Indeed, cause and effect seem to have little to do with each other in this “Hamlet.” For example, though the roles of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Eisuke Sasai) and his lover Ophelia (Shinobu Nakamura, who merits special mention for his portrayal of Ophelia’s final, fatal breakdown) are each performed well, the two women seem to be living separate lives, rather than being bound together in the complex web of castle politics and tragic inevitability.

Sadly, this is the case with almost all the actors. Most damagingly, there seems to be little relation between Hamlet and the others — so much so that it becomes impossible to discern either his bonds with those around him or the misery that alienates him from them.

Compounding the problem is that this lack of unity is echoed by a lack of rhythm and flow in Kawai’s new translation. This text may be very interesting to sit down and read — but transported to the stage it somehow doesn’t ring true.

It gives this reviewer no pleasure at all to conclude that, though each actor turned in a polished individual performance and though the technical crew performed brilliantly, as a whole this production amounted to so much less than the sum of its parts.

Still, the ensemble is the most important element of the performing arts, and — on paper — this ensemble is outstanding. Let’s hope that over the coming month of performances, they create a group dynamic. This would be a “Hamlet” of distinction if the actors could only discover a way to “Let be!”