Global Shakespeares have, in recent years, extended the critical debate on Shakespeare’s works by allowing audiences to hear beyond the iambic pentameter and revisit the stories that Shakespeare told of the human condition through the filter of other cultures and times. Taking away the language forces us to focus on the rhythms and nuances of the play, on the relationships between the characters and the emotions that motivate them, and allows us to see ourselves in them.
The Hamlet at the Barbican in London this past May was Yukio Ninagawa’s eight Hamlet. He has previously described the experience of directing the tragedy as ‘like climbing a very high mountain. Every time I am near the summit, I fall back a little’. Set in the late 19th century when Hamlet was first staged in Japan, this production skillfully merges theatrical styles and costumes to juxtapose east and west, age and youth, naturalism and stylisation, tradition and rebellion.
There were several moments in the production that stood out for me. The staging was visually arresting, with Motoi Hattori’s vivid lighting emphasising the patterns and contrasts in the play. Claudius, Gertrude and their retinue dressed in crimson robes, for instance, were lit in red while the black-clad Hamlet’s isolation was spot-lit with white light. The Kabuki Mousetrap scene, one of the sequences that non-English Hamlet adaptations have frequently found ways of engaging with quite creatively (the Mousetrap dance sequence in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider for instance), was brilliantly executed here: the heavily stylised sequence depicted the actors arranged like ornamental china dolls on a tiered platform, from which they descended to enact the murder. Mikijiro Hira’s Claudius was conspicuous in a moment of painful vulnerability in his scene of repentance and Fujiwara’s Hamlet inspired fear and revulsion when his confrontation with his mother took a violent, incestuous turn. Amidst these moments of intensity, Kenshi Uchida’s Manga Fortinbras was a surprising, though not unwelcome, moment of anachronism.
The lack of English dialogue, and the Japanese setting and theatrical style made this an interesting production. The one note intensity of the play, however, served to alienate.