Kunio plays ‘Hamlet’ fast and loose

by Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

How do you imagine the Prince of Denmark? Perhaps as one of the famed portrayals by Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson or Ethan Hawke — or simply as a weak-willed bore forever agonizing over “To be or not to be” and all that. Well, however you visualize the hero of Shakespeare’s longest play, the Kunio company’s production of “Hamlet” is sure to challenge any preconceptions

Kunio Sugihara is a fast-emerging theater practitioner who began directing while studying drama at Kyoto University of Art and Design (KUAD). In 2004, he founded Kunio, which soon made a name for itself with provocative adaptations of classic texts mixed with hip-hop, J-pop and other contemporary music and fashion.

Since then, Sugihara, 31, has also adapted Western classics for Kunio — notably an 8 ½-hour production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” — as well as modernizing traditional kabuki plays for the Kinoshita-Kabuki company led by Yuichi Kinoshita, which specializes in new fringe productions in that genre.

To mark Kunio’s 10th anniversary, Sugihara decided to stage and direct the classic of classics, “Hamlet,” as a kind of rite-of-passage challenge — one he has spent a whole year preparing.

After auditions in Kyoto and Tokyo last year, he assembled a cast of young and veteran actors from various backgrounds. The title role was awarded to Masaki Kinose, a boyish 22-year-old KUAD student, while Naoto Kaji — a young yet experienced actor with Tokyo’s venerable Bungaku-za Theatre — was chosen to play both the ghost of Hamlet’s deceased father, the king, and Claudius, his uncle who marries Hamlet’s just-widowed mother and so succeeds to King Hamlet’s throne.

Crucially, too, Sugihara decided to stage the First Quarto (Q1) version from 1603, the earliest and shortest form of the play compared with the Second Quarto (Q2, 1604) or the First Folio (F1, 1623) versions that can easily run to a mind-bending 4 hours on stage.

Additionally, the Q1 version is alone in leaving Hamlet’s age open — so allowing Sugihara to present the hero as a student whose youthful impulsiveness ensures he doesn’t linger long over whether or not to revenge his father by killing Claudius.

But then, rather than restaging Tokyo-based En troupe’s well-known “Hamlet Q1″ as translated and directed by the late Tetsuo Anzai, Sugihara had Tomonari Kuwahara, an associate professor at Kyoto University, translate Q1 anew into direct but rhythmical Japanese with adjectives cut to a minimum, while retaining its poetry and prose.

As a result, this second major Japanese production of the Q1 version of “Hamlet” races to the bloody finale in under 2 hours without any intermission.

The production opens with a fluorescent-painted actor’s mouth lip-synching “the show is about to start” against a rock music soundtrack, while a sign reading “THEATER” in illuminated capitals hangs down over the sloping stage from start to finish. And with the cast clad in obnoxiously garish costumes, and reciting their lines “unnaturally,” this overtly metatheatrical and Brechtian production never allows the audience to forget the play’s fictionality.

Nonetheless, this enormously popular work also starkly confronts its audience with life, death and “all the world’s a stage” — issues as rooted in humans’ reality as ever could be.

Kunio Sugihara’s “Hamlet” will be performed at Kyoiku Bunka Kaikan in Sapporo on July 24 and at Owl Spot in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, from Aug. 1-3. For details, visit www.kunio.me.