There is an unapologetic sexiness about Shakespeare in foreign languages. Any performances in a language you don’t understand will be a sensuous experience of rhythm, sound and body language – not only conveying the story but also the culture of its speakers and creatives. Some associate Shakespeare with the English language and the iambic pentameter, but watching a foreign production of one of his plays shows it’s much, much more; it’s about the human condition and his brilliant storytelling. Watching Ninagawa Company’s Hamlet in Japanese at the Barbican is like tasting an oriental dish of passion, madness and the search for truth, exposing us to what lies underneath the flesh of words, in the gut of Shakespeare’s writing.
It quickly becomes evident that Japanese theatre culture has a different quality to the English – there’s an atmosphere of deep discipline and seriousness within the work that resonates a vigorous rehearsal process and a vicious eye for detail. The precision of this production is so recognisable it stings you like a pin. Naoki Kurihara’s fight choreography is so on-point and dangerous that it becomes quite clear how far these performers push themselves to achieve perfection. The sweat and tears escalates throughout the three hour performance, and as the acting style removes itself from Western underplaying it lends itself to a physically demanding immersion in character. If this had been done in English the effect might have been over the top, but as the Japanese language is filled with passion and energy, the actors superbly justify the style and physicality. The result is a play on fire. It’s intense and fascinating.
The world of the play is majestic, and set designers Setsu Asakura and Tsukasa Nakagoshi manage to create a gloomy and dangerous atmosphere in the beauty of Japanese culture. It is very far from cold Denmark but it is clear Hamlet lends itself to any culture, in any time. And though the ensemble beautifully support the atmosphere of the play, it is Tatsuya Fujiwara’s Hamlet who propels us into the dark, daring and utterly fascinating life of this play. His commitment is extraordinary and it is almost painful to watch him bare body and soul throughout, almost sweating blood on behalf of the character. His immersion adds to the hints of cruelty in the play as Claudius whips himself (literally) to repent and Hamlet frightens Gertrude into a frenzy by physically over-powering her. Yukio Ninagawa’s direction is enigmatic and deliciously detailed, especially in the scene between Hamlet and Getrude and Hamlet and Ophelia. It is also worth mentioning the beautiful choreography and vision for the players as we are introduced to old Japanese theatre tradition and movement.
The production is very long and with the surtitles displayed on either side of the massive stage it is difficult following the text if sitting in the stalls. The visual life of the play is stunning and helps you journey through the language barrier, though there are a few hiccups on the way – at times the design becomes a bit too Western and jars with the culture, and a mysterious helicopter sound effect acts like a confusing gimmick mid-through. That said, Hamlet is an incredible experience for any Shakespeare lovers – it is enigmatic and depicts the world’s most famous contemplator with fire-red energy and passion that projects so much energy into the space it feels like you’re burnt by him. A deeply developed production.
Hamlet is playing at the Barbican until 24 May. For tickets and more information, see the Barbican website. Photo by Takahiro Watanabe.