‘Hamlet’ marks take #18 in Shakespeare for Children series

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

“When I acted a nursemaid in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in the first program of this Shakespeare for Children series, I was surprised that no children made fun of a man in that role — they naturally accepted that theater is fundamentally fiction and just enjoyed the play,” Seisuke Yamasaki recalled in a recent interview.

Reflecting further on that 1995 launch of his ongoing project to introduce the Bard’s works to youngsters, Yamasaki — who’s a top actor and director in the wider theater world as well — continued, “I realized then that we mustn’t underestimate children’s capability, because they can enjoy Shakespeare plays just as adults do.”

Now an established and hugely popular series, whose productions invariably end with tremendous applause, Shakespeare for Children was first staged at the rate of roughly one play per year at the former Panasonic Globe Theatre in the city’s Shinjuku district.

Then, after that venue was sold in 2002, the series that’s now racked up 18 productions — including “Twelfth Night,” “Cymbeline,” “Richard III” and “Hamlet” (now being reprised) — started playing at theaters across the city before settling since 2008 at Owlspot in Ikebukuro.

Meanwhile, though in that debut production of “Romeo and Juliet” he just acted, Yamasaki has also directed every play since — as well as reconstructing the Bard’s originals into two-hour dramas from translations by the renowned Yuushi Odashima.

Yet though Yamasaki’s target audiences range in age from 10 upward, there’s nothing patronizing or simplistic about his stagings. In fact his trademark sets — featuring seven typical wooden classroom tables and 10 chairs that can be lined up, stacked, made into platforms or whatever — would be considered cutting-edge in many other productions.

As well, he incorporates a “black-coat chorus,” which sees any of the actors in the roughly 10-strong cast who are not involved in a scene — though many play minor roles as well as their main one — discreetly donning big black hats and coats and chanting together, acting as a crowd or sometimes individually as a voice of conscience or inner fear.

And then there’s a child-size Bard puppet worked by Yamasaki that often takes a key role he’s added to the original. In the current production, for instance, it plays an alter-Hamlet that brings an extra dimension of introspection to the prince’s self-doubts.

Commenting on his stagings, Yamasaki said, “I am especially aware of children at the scriptwriting stage, but I take the same approach to direction and rehearsal as if the play was for adults. So, as the words of are often even difficult for grown-ups, I carefully select the vocabulary to vividly appeal to children.”

For the upcoming “Hamlet,” for instance, he explained how he created a special trigger at the start to capture children’s attention by having actors deliver different Japanese translations of the world- famous line, “To be, or not to be …”

“There are several quite different interpretations in Japanese,” Yamasaki explained, “for example there’s ‘To live or die’ or ‘Is it okay as it is, or not?’ Yet though it’s so famous, the line doesn’t especially matter to children — and anyway, most of them will be hearing it for the first time. So I intentionally repeated it in various different translations to make a strong impression at the start and grab their interest.”

Then the director went on to share his view of the work as a whole, saying, “Ultimately, the play is about Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, being torn between conflicting emotions. As the agonized young man tries to find an answer to his questions, he delivers seven monologues that express his inner voice — but which he thinks no one else can hear. However, the audience knows what he’s saying — unlike the cast members, who all think he’s going mad. So there’s always different dimensions and sympathies in play.”

With all this talk of conflicting emotions and Hamlet’s inner voice, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Shakespeare for Children plays actually attract at least as many adults as kids. Reflecting that, indeed, in 2010 the company won the prestigious Kinokuniya Drama Award for this series and another popular Yamasaki project that staged the works of Anton Chekhov.

Modest as ever, though, Yamasaki would only say this about his work: “I just want to make Shakespeare plays more familiar for anyone to enjoy as a great entertainment — and for the cast to enjoy acting in, with nobody left standing alone behind the curtain for ages.”

“Hamlet” plays Sept. 7 in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki Pref.; Sept. 8 in Kagoshima; and Sept. 11-15 at Owlspot in Higashi-Ikebukuro, Tokyo. For details, call 03-5967-1217 or visit canonkikaku.com.