What is it about “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s most famous drama, that obsesses Yukio Ninagawa, Japanese theater’s global standard-bearer? The innovative director has already staged the play four times — and his fifth take on the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark opened last week at the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon in Shibuya, with eager fans queuing round the block for tickets.
His first stab at the tragedy was back in 1978 at the Imperial Theater in Tokyo. Ninagawa’s leading man was celebrity actor Mikijiro Hira, then in his mid-40s prime, and the director homed in on the power games inherent to the plot. After a second shot at this Danish tale tailored, in contrast, for a tiny Tokyo venue, along came Ninagawa’s third version, with Hiroyuki Sanada in the title role and Mariko Kaga magnificent as Gertrude, queenly object of the prince’s mother complex.
This version, also presented without any English translation but to great acclaim at London’s Barbican Theatre in 1998, focused not on power games, but on Hamlet’s distress at his mother’s remarriage to his uncle and the dilemma over his powerlessness. This striking production notably featured visible “dressing rooms” elevated at the back of the stage area. This allowed the audience to see those not currently onstage acting in commentary, often as shadows behind a curtain, in a way that powerfully brought out Hamlet’s inner turmoil as he battled looming insanity.
Now, after his fourth “Hamlet” at Saitama Arts Center in 2001, which famously ended with the royal house of Denmark heaped dead on the stage as motorbike gangs rampaged around to rock music, 68-year-old Ninagawa is back for a fifth time in Elsinore — this time conjured up in the intimate auditorium of the Cocoon.
Here, interest has centered on Ninagawa’s decision to cast his 21-year-old protege Tatsuya Fujiwara in the key role. Academics and others have long been split over Hamlet’s age, with some contending that Shakespeare suggests he is 30, and others that the Bard imagined a 19-year-old. Either way, this production marks the first time that Ninagawa has tackled the challenge of a royally troubled youth.
In Fujiwara, Ninagawa has certainly picked a young man of great ability — one who first shot to prominence with his sensational stage debut starring at the Barbican in 1997 in Ninagawa’s production of “Shintokumaru,” a drama by the late Shuji Terayama (d. 1983) about a perverted relationship between a boy and his stepmother.
Around Fujiwara, Ninagawa has cast a group of rising young talent, including 24-year-old Yoshio Inoue as our hero’s fencing rival, Laertes, 16-year-old An Suzuki as Laertes’ sister and Hamlet’s lover, Ophelia, and 21-year-old Shun Oguri as Hamlet’s idol and successor, the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras.
There’s a “grunge” feel to this “Hamlet,” most evident in its striking stage set: The center of the auditorium is simply a bare concrete rectangle which, in the first half is surrounded by high wire-netting so that it looks like a public basketball court in an urban housing project. With gates in this fencing on all sides, the players take to the stage and leave it each time accompanied by a noisy, disruptive rattling. Then in the second act, the fence is gone, leaving just the bare, cold space.
It’s clearly an attempt at symbolizing Hamlet’s psychology. In the first half, it hints that he’s a bird in a cage, a naive young man intruded upon — indeed, usurped — by the new king, Claudius (Tokuma Nishioka), and weighed down by the atmosphere of the court. In the second half, as Hamlet resolves to execute his murderous revenge, the fence disappears along with his self-doubt. Unfortunately, though the idea sounds good in theory, in practice it’s underused and ineffectual. More than anything else, the fence is more an annoying visual obstruction.
However, the young cast turns in fine, enthusiastic performances. Fujiwara brilliantly portrays Hamlet as a noble and respected young prince, wise beyond his years. His counterpoint, the faithful and honorable Laertes, is acted superbly by Inoue, and young Suzuki shows huge promise as the tragically pure-hearted Ophelia.
But, like its hero, this production has a fatal flaw: the editing. Or rather, the lack of it.
This “Hamlet” grinds on for a brain-straining 3 1/2 hours, obsessively noting every detail — every nuance, however slight — that the director has apparently ever perceived in this text. In what becomes an almost unendurably tedious process, the production withers along with the audience. Instead of a fast-paced production to match and maximise the vibrancy of its bright young stars, this staging singularly plods along from start to distant finish. What a lost opportunity.
The problem, ironically, seems to be Ninagawa’s very familiarity with “Hamlet.” Perhaps the director has come to know it too well to be able to sacrifice any of its dimensions he has encountered over the years — or to condense them into a length appropriate for public performance.
Undoubtedly, though, no such thoughts were in Fujiwara’s mind when he stated in a recent interview that, “After this production finishes, I will think about whether to continue acting or not.” Whatever the imperfections of the present staging, there is no doubt at all in this reviewer’s mind that his decision should be in the affirmative.