Posts Tagged ‘Ninagawa Company’

I suppose going to see a stage adaptation in Japanese of a book you haven’t read is a questionable decision. Reading up in advance I discovered that it contained a number of riddles and the novelist, Haruki Murakami, suggested that reading it several times was the key to understanding it. Others have suggested reading earlier works to aid understanding. There are surtitles, but they were badly positioned, requiring you to miss much visually, and I’m not sure if you read every word you’d be much wiser anyway. By the interval I was exhausted and befuddled; my brain was hurting trying to work it all out. Somehow in the second half though it cast a spell and I was surprised to find myself enchanted and moved, even though I hadn’t completed the jigsaw.

The two parallel stories involve Kafka, a teenage boy who’s mother and sister left home when he was very young and he too has now run away, and Nakata, an old man who was struck by a strange affliction when he was the same age as the teenage boy towards the end of the second world war as a result of which he can communicate with cats. Kafka is befriended by a trans-gender librarian and Nakata by a truck driver. Kafka has an alter ego who appears to him as a crow. The senior librarian, where Kafka is now a trainee, may be his mother and Nakata may have killed his father, a sculptor who appears as the man on the Johnnie Walker bottle. Oh, and there’s Colonel Sanders as a pimp, a pair of angry feminists and a prostitute who spouts philosophy whilst on the job – and the cats are wonderful. It plays with concepts of time space and memory and at times feels like a detective story.

It’s striking staging, with every scene taking place in a large glass case, much like a museum, whatever it’s location – office, home, shrine, truck, woods, library etc. These include a bank of vending machines and a row of urinals! These cases are manually moved around the stage and lit by neon lights within and spots from above. I found myself enthralled by the scene changes as well as the scenes. The lighting is crucial and it’s terrific. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Nino Furuhata a charming Kafka and Katsumi Kiba captivating and funny as Nakata.

This stage adaptation by Frank Galati started out in English at Steppenwolf in Chicago and has now gone full circle and been translated into Japanese and brought to the UK. Murakami says he doesn’t want to see stage or film adaptations of his what is in his head, and I do wonder if this is the sort of story that’s better left to your own visual imagination, but for me it was lovely to see the Ninagawa Company do a modern piece, inventively staged, alongside the more traditional Hamlet; between them they illustrate Ninagawa’s genius perfectly. A lovely 80th celebration for us, even though he sadly couldn’t make his own party.

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I’ve called it that because it’s apparently the great Japanese director’s sixth, and the third he’s brought to the UK – well, sadly, not personally this time as he isn’t well enough to travel.

Seeing a Ninagawa Shakespeare production is a bit like travelling back in time to an age of sumptuous flowing cloaks and gowns, actual scene breaks in blackout and larger than life acting with great presence and big exaggerated gestures. If you’re in the half of the audience which doesn’t speak Japanese, it’s the visual impact that matters and that’s where Ninagawa is masterly. Tatsuya Fujiwara, who first came here aged 15 in Shintoku-Maru, is a terrific Hamlet, even if you can’t understand a word he says!

This isn’t overtly Japanese, like his Shogun cherry blossom Macbeth or Kabuki Twelfth Night. We’re told the setting is a poor Japanese neighbourhood in the 18th century, when Shakespeare was first seen in Japan. The play within a play references the Hinamatsuri (dolls day or girls day) tradition. Other than that, it’s royal everywhere. Some of the verse speaking seemed very rushed, but that could be the natural rhythms of Japanese speech. It’s at its best in the big scenes and the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes is one of the finest I’ve seen, and the arrival of Fortinbras at the end is terrific. The more introspective parts work less well (for non-Japanese speakers) without comprehensible verse.

These visits to London by the Ninagawa Company have enriched my theatre-going for almost 30 years. (He’s brought 19 productions, including 10 different Shakespeare plays and two productions in English – including Nigel Hawthorne’s Lear)  and it looks like I’m soon going to have to come to terms with life without them, but for now this 80th birthday visit includes the more modern Kafka on the Shore next week, so my fix will continue a little longer.

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Well I suppose you’re bound to have some controversy if you invite artists from 37 countries, but my heart sank as I approached The Globe for the 21st time in 38 days to find it resembling a war zone. Two groups of protestors – for and against, obviously – lots of police vans and officers, x-ray and bag searches on entry (via a special door). All I wanted on this sunny evening was my now customary Pimms and more of that drug called Shakespeare.

Though the disturbances were few and far between, it was hard to concentrate (particularly in the first half) on this Israeli  Merchant of Venice. The eyes of the audience (and the actors; I don’t know how they concentrated) moved to banners, ladies with taped mouths and the occasional cry or appropriate Shakespeare quote. I couldn’t clock the regulars I’d by now got used to seeing and talking to and I was as disturbed by this very partisan audience as I was by the protesters. I felt someone had hijacked MY festival and I felt violated. Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole addressed us, positioning the evening as art not politics, asking us to remain calm during the inevitable interruptions.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the interpretation was more sympatric to Shylock than many, in particular by inserting an opening scene showing him attacked by his anti-Semitic neighbours (including his subsequent victim Antonio) and a long sad journey from the stage at the end. The (Venice) carnivalesque style was clever and the trail scene (the whole second half) was expertly staged. There were fine performances from the entire company. Exiting the theatre through a police cordon was a sad end to the evening.

The Spanish drew the short straw with Henry VIII but they did an excellent job, with a particularly fine company of actors who commanded the whole stage like few others have. Their interpretation was also more sympathetic to their compatriot Katherine of Aragon, in particular with her ‘haunting’ the closing coronation and christening scenes; Elena Gonzalez was superb in this role. There was terrific music from a faux period organ above the stage and suitably royal costumes. There’s something delicious about an English lord talking in Spanish about his visit to the French court! The young German girl standing next to me, who spoke no Spanish and limited English, told me it was the best thing she’d done in her visit to London, which really made my day.

Like South Sudan before it, the appearance of a company from Afghanistan (with help from The British Council) was very welcome indeed. It was a somewhat broad staging of The Comedy of Errors, a little rough at the edges, but the combined enthusiasm of the cast and the audience swept it along on a wave of fun. Ephesus was Kabul & Syracuse was Samarkand (an excuse for a few jokes, like the dress of the arrivals from Uzbekistan!) but in other respects it was TCOA as we know it, played for laughs as it is meant to be. The Kitchen maid who lusts after a Dromio, played by a man in drag with a beard, brought the house down!

Across the river at the Barbican, you couldn’t have got a Shakespeare production further away from this – an epic staging of Cymbeline in Japanese by the Ninagawa company. His Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play I saw in a foreign language (so the addiction is his fault!) and I’ve seen a handful more of his since. Though I regretted buying a ticket without a practical view of the surtitles (more important with this rarer, more complicated play than any others), having seen it a few weeks ago (the South Sudan production at G2G, also a million miles away from this) and read the synopsis, I survived – and it allowed me to concentrate on the  visual feast before my eyes. It was surprisingly funny and somewhat moving at the denouement, but it was the epic staging of battles and beautiful visual images that captivated. Gorgeous!

It would have been nice to end on a high, but I’m afraid the German Timon of Athens showed the worst of (mainland) European theatre i.e. where the director thinks he knows better than the playwright and takes too many liberties. The Polish Macbeth took a lot of liberties, but it still got to the heart of the play, which for me this one didn’t. Giving the Germans a play about a spendthrift Greek was a bit of a gift given current events, but they didn’t really make the most of it! It will probably be remembered most for being the first exposed male genitalia (?) on the Globe stage.

This has been an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My only regret is that I missed 13 of them, especially those from Kenya, Macedonia and Belaruss – but of the 24 I did see, I left only 5 feeling disappointed, which is a better hit rate than my normal theatre going! Hopefully, The Globe will return to an annual visit from an overseas company (can we start by asking the Georgians back please?!), as they did in their early years. For now, though its back to English language Shakespeare with a deconstructed Hamlet inside a box, Henry V & Mark Rylance’s Richard III back at The Globe, Simon Russell Beale’s Timon of Athens at the NT, Coriolanus at an RAF base in Wales and Jonathan Pryce’s King Lear at the Almeida – oh, I forgot my 4th Polish Macbeth in Edinburgh!

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