Director falters and then triumphs

Yukio Ninagawa directs two great Shakespearean tragedies

by Nobuko Tanaka

Few names resonate more powerfully in the world of theater than that of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s youthful Prince of Denmark. In whatever language, somewhere in the world right now, an actor is likely embarking on that famously challenging soliloquy beginning “To be or not to be . . .”

For the Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, that resonance appears particularly visceral, as the 69-year-old artistic director of Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya and also of the Saitama Arts Centre has now risen to the “Hamlet” challenge three times in the last 10 years. In 1995, he staged the play with the prince played by Yukihiro Sanada, focusing on the implied incest with his mother, Gertrude, played by Mariko Kaga. The production met huge acclaim both in Japan and Britain, where audiences were astonished that an Asian was tackling their Bard with such freshness and elan.

Then, last year at Theatre Cocoon, he created a decidedly teenage version of Hamlet, focusing — through the role of 21-year-old Tatsuya Fujiwara — not so much on the mother complex, but more on his dreams and ideals of youth being despoiled by self-serving family elders.

However, while both those productions were in Japanese (the first translated by Kazuko Matsuoka and the second translated by Shoichiro Kawai), this third bite at the Hamlet cherry was — fortunately for speakers of Shakespeare’s native language — in English.

Not only that, but he staged it with a cast of English actors in eight provincial English cities before bringing the performance to a climax at the renowned Barbican Center in London in November of this year.

Justifiably famed for his directorial trademark, an aesthetic fusing the Japonesque and Western — an approach that has earned him awards in both Japan and Britain — Ninagawa has nonetheless always resisted becoming a brand, insisting that he is quite happy “to betray his former self” rather than sink into repetition.

True to form, this time his approach to the tragedy of Hamlet had vastly changed. But gone are his stunningly visual sets of yore. Just 12 naked light bulbs dangle over the Barbican stage and eight strands of barbed-wire discretely and dangerously divide the stage space from floor to ceiling. There was nothing fancy or metaphysical about this set; Ninagawa had purposely positioned the barbed wire to restrict the cast’s movements and throw their and the audience’s focus keenly on the story itself and the characters’ inner feelings. Hence the actors were clad in simple, unflamboyant robes — Hamlet’s black, Ophelia’s white and the others in deep red.

Michael Maloney, playing Hamlet, rose superbly to the occasion, delivering his lines magnificently directly to the audience, personifying a fascinatingly firm and mature take on the oft-maligned noble prince. Peter Egan, as Claudius, presented himself as a venerable and wise leader of Denmark, while Robert Demeger, as Polonius — the quintessence of a doomed peacemaker and middle man — played his role so memorably as that of a dignified and lovable, albeit royal man.

But there was a catch. If this production were to be compared to an orchestra playing a symphony, the composer and musicians were undoubtedly outstanding. However, it was as if the orchestra were playing without a conductor. Each actor was left to realize the potential of his or her own role but there was no sense of focus to the production, or any real interaction between the actors toward creating one overall concept. Here, it seemed, Ninagawa was not three times lucky. Three times consistently stylish, certainly — but what was his intention, apart from letting his fine cast make their own intentions manifest?

It was such a shame to see such fine soldiers fighting so well in such unfortunate, ill-defined circumstances with the general on the hill appearing to be simply admiring the view.

After staging “Hamlet” in London, Ninagawa came back to Tokyo to present the latest of his many versions of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Nissei Theatre in Hibiya, mainly with the same cast as last year’s “teenage” “Hamlet,” featuring 22-year-old Tatsuya Fujiwara starring again as Romeo and 17-year-old Anne Suzuki as Juliet. In total contrast to his English “Hamlet,” this was a triumphant Ninagawa tour de force of strong and detailed directing, that is appealing to a wide range of theatergoers.

The stage — designed beautifully by Tsukasa Nakagoshi — was surrounded by a three-story rampart covered by black-and-white portraits of hundreds of people of various nationalities and races, so emphasizing the play’s universality from the outset.

The actors’ costumes are designed by Lily Komine in contemporary Harajuku style. Mercutio’s John Lennon-style dark round sunglasses and punkish striped trousers, and his and Romeo’s friend Abraham’s beaten-up leather jacket and spiky hair — not to mention Romeo’s Dr. Martin boots — all served to focus this Ninagawa production firmly on youth, both its urge to run so fast and its inability to control itself at high speeds.

In particular, though, brilliant acting by the two principals made this production very special — especially in the scene where they meet each other at the ball. Suzuki amazingly acts Juliet as a pure, single-minded girl before, in the second act, sublimely presenting her delicate growth into womanhood. Meanwhile, Fujiwara not only portrays the romantic side of Romeo, but also shows his charm as a reliable friend to his companions Mercutio and Benvolio.

With great support from Ninagawa’s other regulars in the likes of Tetsuo Sagawa (Friar Lawrence), Haruhiko Jo (Lord Capulet) and Ryoko Tateishi (Lady Capulet), in contrast to the London “Hamlet,” this was a triumphant success for the Ninagawa team, with every onstage moment a testament to the actors’ and crew’s trust in their dramatic conductor.