William Shakespeare
The Ninagawa Company
barbicanbite07 in association with Saitama Arts Foundation, HoriPro Inc and Thelma Holt Ltd Barbican Theatre

Production photo

Visually this is a dazzlingly successful show. The Barbican's glass-facetted safety curtain parts to reveal another mirror screen reflecting back the audience, the plebeians of Rome come on stage via the auditorium, line up and bow. Clearly we are supposed to be one with them. After a moment looking at ourselves they reappear on a great flight of steps behind the now transparent mirror. To left and right walls of mirror extend the steps and multiply the crowd. At the top of the steps four statues of Buddhist or Shinto gods are also multiplied by a screen of mirror behind them. Already a large company of forty actors, whether common people, senators, soldiers their numbers are multiplied by their reflections - a much greater sense of crowds than was achieved with three times that number on this stage in Deborah Warner's Julius Caesar.

On the upper level receding screens of translucent mirrors or painted panels open and close to a sound like a giant's growl to mark location as Corioli, Antium or patrician interiors. Everything looks simple and uncluttered but is carefully calculated. Colour glows against it. High-born Romans wear black, plebeians brown and russet autumn colours, tribunes black and brown and Volscians white. Set designer Tsukasa Nakagoshi, costume designer Lily Komine and lighting designer Tamotsu Harada have done a splendid job.

From the first busy crowd scene things are always in motion. Even when there are only two or three actors on the stage reflections multiply the smallest movement. Battles are stunningly choreographed (by Masahiro Kunii), with flashing weaponry, but stylized so that those killed always get off-stage and do not litter the steps with bodies.

Speech too, is delivered at great speed, but with an apparent clarity that puts some of our own actors to shame (though I was centre stalls which does make a difference). But be warned that that does not make this a short evening! There must be nearly two hours before the interval and the whole lasts three and a quarter.

Director Ninagawa makes wonderful stage pictures. In the past I have often felt that he was not so good at getting performances from actors. When, last year, he brought Titus Andronicus to Stratford, I sensed that he had begun to give them more attention, allowing less self indulgence, applying more rigour. His Titus, Kotaro Yoshida, plays Menenius in this production. He plays him less as the gently-spoken, clever politician than as a patrician as demanding, though more canny, as his fellows. It is a performance that becomes central to the play.

A Japanese setting (as in David Farr's Stratford production four years ago) makes great sense of the aristocrat/plebeian division. With a background of Samurai bushido and the feudal divisions of the society the arrogance of the nobility is part of their character. War hero Coriolanus' problem is not so much his arrogance, his peers share that, as that he can't do the politician's trick of kissing babies to ensure compliant popular support.

Ninagawa makes us appreciate the nobility's fear of the common people but tends to make them funny rather than threatening. If he wants us to identify with them it makes one wonder what he thinks of his audiences. Gullible and controllable? Perhaps he is not so arrogant but is saying the play reflects society. If the populace can be turned and controlled then it is the tribunes that the patricians should fear: it is their plot to remove Coriolanus and his like. Their plotting here seems public, rather than backstairs skulduggery - perhaps the mirror effects in this case back-firing,

Toshiaki Caracara's Coriolanus is short of stature compared to some of his fellow aristos but he makes up for inches in self-assurance. His difficulty is not arrogance but an inability to see outside the role he has given himself, a refusal to play other people's games. This is a performance of great vitality and no bombast.

Coriolanus is paired with an Aufidius (Masanobu Katsumura) who knows he is in his shadow. I missed any real spark of mutual admiration and certainly there was no suggestion of the homoerotic bonding between Volscian and Roman that has been suggested in some productions.

Kayoko Shiraishi is an actress weighed down with awards but I have always found her far too histrionic - especially when she came to the Mermaid in Ninagawa's A Midsummer Night's Dream. However, her melodramatic extravagant style did seem appropriate to the character of Coriolanus' domineering and self-righteous mother Volumnia; you'd do anything to get her out of your hair. However I am not so sure it worked for Japanese speakers. She did get laughs from several different groups near me, especially when screeching at the tribunes who had exiled her son.

This seems a very strong company. It is impossible for a non-Japanese speaker to properly judge how well they get the content of the play over but they play with great style and the production keeps the audience constantly engaged. Ninagawa is perilously near going OTT, as when he has Coriolanus playing scenes studded with arrows, but shows how carefully he calculates his effects when, having kept his battles gore free (though not returning warriors) in Coriolanus' and Aufidius' final skirmish he follows numerous bloodless wounding thrusts to the body with a final death stroke that fountains blood. His theatrical sense is paramount. In the same way each clash of weapon on weapon, every movement of a screen is matched in the sound score by Masahiro Inoue and composer Yasuhiro Kasamatsu. Again it is on the verge of being too much but it carries an audience not able to understand Japanese on a wave of emotion, not least when, as Coriolanus' body is carried off and the play draws to a close, a Buddhist funeral chant swells behind the music (and also appears on the screens through which they pass).

Of course, it helps to already know the play, but there are surtitles on either side of the stage which ensure that you can follow the plot and it being in Japanese should put no one off. This is Ninagawa at his best.

25th-29th April

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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