Friday, 22 May 2015

Theatre review: Hamlet (Ninagawa Company)

With Billyclub Grumbleduke due to start skull-gazing at the Barbican in a couple of months' time, other London venues haven't been in any hurry to compete, so Hamlets are thin on the ground this year. One exception comes at the Barbican itself, which precedes the main event with the 80th birthday celebrations of leading Japanese Shakespeare director Yukio Ninagawa. This is a new production, but not the first time Hamlet's been tackled by Ninagawa - in fact this is his eighth, and the second one to star Tatsuya Fujiwara. The setting this time, in designs by Setsu Asakura and Tsukaka Nakagoshi, is a run-down, poor province in the 19th century, around the time the play was first taken to Japan. Behind the rickety wooden walls, King Claudius (Mikijiro Hira) enjoys the trappings of wealth and power he stole from his brother. The old king's son Hamlet suspects something, but it's only when his father's ghost appears that he finds out Claudius murdered him, and vows to plot revenge. Mainly plot it, not so much do anything about it.

The design's focus on the poverty just outside Elsinore's walls isn't explored a huge amount, although it does feel particularly relevant in the scene where an angry populace attempts to oust Claudius and install Laertes (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) in his place.


The production is largely done in naturalistic Western style, with moves into traditional Japanese theatre styles for the scenes with the Players - the Mousetrap is done in a style inspired by Hinamatsuri, an annual festival of dolls. There are other clever touches: Ninagawa expands on the usual gag of Claudius not being able to tell Rosencrantz (Hiroyuki Mamiya) and Guildenstern (Eiichi Seike) apart, making everyone unsure which is which; and the two toadies obliging by swapping places whenever one of the royals gets it wrong. The director does dispense with any sense of subtlety though in the Oedipal overtones of Hamlet's closet scene with Gertrude (Ran Ohtori.)


Fujiwara plays Hamlet as unpredictable, full of wild mood swings. Taka Takao goes for the most sympathetic reading of Polonius, his chuckling old man one of the most endearing portrayals I've seen. And the very different Japanese take on things leads to a few surprises, like Kenshi Uchida's whispering, feminine Fortinbras, surely no soldier himself but evidently inspiring loyalty in the Norwegian army like some kind of cult leader. A lot of interesting ideas then, but in the overall storytelling Ninagawa's production tends towards the ponderous: I can't say I didn't enjoy it for the most part, but it's at times a slow evening, punctuated by fresh takes on familiar moments.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare in a version by Shoichiro Kawai is booking until the 24th of May at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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