William Shakespeare (translated by Kazuko Matsuoka)
Ninagawa Company
Barbican Theatre

Hiroshi Abe as Posthumus and Shinobu Otake as Imogen Credit: Takahiro Watanabe
Hiroshi Abe as Posthumus and Shinobu Otake as Imogen Credit: Takahiro Watanabe
Kohtaloh Yoshida as Cymbeline (left) and Horishi Abe as Posthumus (centre) Credit: Takahiro Watanabe

Two rows of dressing tables ranged across the front of the stage confront the audience arriving for this latest of Yukio Ninagawa’s Shakespeare productions. At them, actors are preparing for the performance. When they are ready they line up at the front of the stage and with the auditorium now dimmed in what seems a single dramatic gesture cast off their dressing gowns to reveal their dazzling character costumes.

Everything then moves upstage and disappears into darkness. Shadowy screens and scenic elements, including an eagle with spread wings and a wolf suckling Rome’s Romulus and Remus, move smoothly across the stage in stately choreography before resolving into the setting for the first scene. It is a scenographic overture that both prefigures what is to come and marks out the theatricality of Ninagawa’s style, a reminder that we are in a theatre and watching a carefully planned construct.

Ninagawa and his designers (Tsukasa Nakogoshi for sets, Nobuko Miyamoto, costumes and Jiro Katsushiba, lighting) are meticulous. The screens fit together to move as a single wall, for interior scenes high apertures open like clerestory windows exactly matched to lamp positions to allow a precisely placed beam to shine through. The style of the costumes is that mixture of cultures that Ninagawa has made familiar, a Japanese painting of a famous scene from the 11th-century Tale of Genji in which men discuss women forms the backing for the scene in Rome where Iachimo bets Posthumus that his wife Imogen is seducible which begins a main strand of the plot.

This production is intensely visual with a stunning slow motion battle as Britons fight Romans but it is also a well-played telling of the story, though unless you know the play well you will need the surtitles to follow its sometimes too coincidental plot of a princess going against her father’s wishes, a scheming Queen, potions, duplicity, cross-dressing, kidnapped princes and remorse. Its characters have been reimagined by these Japanese performers with a refreshing vitality.

Kohtaloh Yoshida as King Cymbeline, massively costumed so that he looks like a bully boy, makes him very hot-headed and as his Queen Ran Ohtori is commandingly flouncy with an appropriate touch of Snow White’s stepmother about her. There is a passionate Posthumus from Hiroshi Abe and a delightfully innocent Imogen from Shinobu Otake who at first jabbers away nineteen to the dozen like a Japanese schoolgirl on a mobile but has grown up quite a lot by the end of the play. This Iachimo is no standard villain he makes him a rather cool intellectual gentleman.

Masanobu Katsumura is a suitably clottish Cloten and Keita Oishi seems to have recognized Posthumus's servant Pisanio as another of Shakespeare’s clowns: he plays him like a delightful character from a Japanese kyogen. Although the First Folio calls this a tragedy, it is really a romance and certainly not without humour: Japanese members of the audience were responding to its verbal as well as its physical comedy.

Belarius (Tetsuro Sagawa) and the boys Guiderius (Kenji Urai) and Arviragus (Satoru Kawagushi) who take him for their father, are less clearly drawn and I did not even register “Fear no more”, the funeral dirge which is probably the best known part of this play (I was rather hoping for a Japanese musical setting). Masanobu Katsumura Jupiter was also a little disappointing: despite his thunder and lightning, which punctuates some scenes, he makes a very subdued delivery despite being borne through the air on a huge eagle.

But there is plenty to relish in this production, not least a contemporary reference in the final scene of reconciliation which takes place before a solitary pine tree. This represents the single tree out of a forest of 70,000 at Rikuzen Takata-shi that miraculously survived last year’s tsunami. When all is restored to order the backcloth rises and the company disappear in slow motion past the tree into darkness like the receding waters.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton