William Shakespeare
Ninagawa Company
Barbican Theatre

Tatsuya Fujiwara
Mikjiro Hira (Claudius) and Ran Ohtori (Gertrude) Credit: Takahiro Watanabe

Yukio Ninagawa's 80th birthday celebrations give Londoners an opportunity to sample his unique directing style.

The Ninagawa Company frequently uses a Japanese aesthetic to explore western works and especially Shakespeare's canon and that is exactly what the veteran has done on this occasion.

Hamlet has been updated to 19th century Japan and inevitably with this director plus a four-man design team the result looks gorgeous throughout.

The staging, in Japanese with very good English surtitles, is generally simple but benefits immensely from subtle lighting and the constant use of dry ice to soften the visual effect. It features a set designed by Setsu Asakura and Tsukasda Nakagoshi which uses slightly dilapidated wooden cottages as a background to the drama and relatively quickly assembled set pieces such as a bed, a grave or in one case banked seating to change the location.

The main colour schemes are black for the ghostly scenes and sumptuous reds at court while the Norwegians under Fortinbras fill the navy blue corner. This makes virginal Ophelia in white stand out from the crowd.

There is a series of beautiful images, culminating in The Mousetrap play within a play, when the vignette literally drew gasps from the audience.

The 90-minute period prior to the interval is generally faithful to the original and solid rather than exciting.

Battle Royale favourite Tatsuya Fujiwara as Hamlet incongruously sports rock star hair but otherwise is very much of his period. He broods and soliloquises like a sulky schoolboy expressing dissatisfaction and pain facially rather than physically, never willing to interact with his mother or new uncle-stepfather.

In parallel, a somewhat humorless Polonius drills obedient Ophelia in the charms that she will need to hook Hamlet and become Queen.

This version really takes off as the pressure rises. First, Mikijiro Hira playing Claudius rather belatedly experiences remorse and does so in an anguished eastern fashion that is the actor's high point of the evening.

Next, after Hamlet hot-headedly but accidentally sees off Polonius, the reaction of Ran Ohtori in the role of Gertrude is painfully realistic.

Then, the frail Hikari Mitsushima as Ophelia is deeply touching as the desperate character loses her sanity.

Fortinbras, often completely forgotten in productions today, takes centre stage in the denouement changing the balance of the piece for the better.

There are also moments that even Hamlet groupies may never have imagined, the most shocking being the protagonist's angry incestuous rape of Gertrude immediately after the closet scene.

Having been drawn in to the somewhat unusual take on an old favourite, the audience also gets to enjoy a pair of unorthodox gravediggers, cartoonlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and one of the best stage sword fights in recent memory.

Watching a three-hour presentation with surtitles and an underlying theory that is alien to most might sound daunting but for those of adventurous mind and all fans of Japanese culture or the work of Ninagawa this touring production will be a special occasion.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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