Yukio Ninagawa’s “cherry-blossom” staging of “Macbeth” at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985, with actors in that famously Scottish play sporting kimono rather than kilts, was a sensation due to its radical reimagining of so revered a work.
Since then, the 79-year-old director’s uniquely visual productions of 29 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays have continued to amaze and astonish audiences and critics worldwide — whether his “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” staged in 1995 and ’96 with a Zen stone garden replacing the enchanted forest; his beautiful 2005 kabuki version of “Twelfth Night” set in medieval Japan; or his “Coriolanus” in which samurai battled on a temple’s steep stone steps.
However, perhaps nothing is more astounding than the fact that Ninagawa has already staged no fewer than seven versions of “Hamlet,” the Bard’s longest play that he wrote between 1599 and 1602. Nothing, that is, apart from the fact that his eighth take on the tragedy has just opened in Saitama before heading off to Osaka, Taipei and London.
Standouts among those previous versions include the first, highly stylized Japanese-style production in 1978; the sixth, staged in London in 2004 with Royal Shakespeare Company actors performing in a barbed-wire enclosure on an almost bare stage; and 2012’s bold and energetic seventh version acted by young people Ninagawa selected through public auditions to join the Saitama Next Theater he founded in 2009 at Saitama Arts Theater, where he is artistic director.
That 2012 “Hamlet,” which used a clear-acrylic two-story set, also saw Ninagawa create a young man anguished and irritated by the establishment, rather than the usual vacillating Prince of Denmark. And remarkably in Japan’s star-besotted entertainment world, that work won a coveted Yomiuri Award.
So why revisit “Hamlet” yet again?
Well, for one thing, one of Ninagawa’s favorite actors, Tatsuya Fujiwara, was so excited by that 2012 staging that he implored him to create another version in which he could again take the title role he played James Dean-style at age 21 in the 2004 version set in a fenced-in basketball court.
In his program notes for the current production, though, Ninagawa points out: “At the beginning of the play, with the first line “Who’s there?” (spoken by a guard on duty one misty night) Shakespeare asked us our identity. Now I am answering that question (of who I am) with this play.”
In doing so, he combines new ideas with jewels from his directorial treasure trove, including the tiered platforms he’s often used to convey hierarchy, and his trademark traditional wooden row houses, which here represent the walls of Elsinore castle in Denmark.
Meanwhile, except for Hikari Mitsushima, the hot new stage and screen actress who portrays a particularly sweet Ophelia — doomed though she is to drown while trying to pick a beautiful flower — most of the rest of the cast are Ninagawa regulars.
Among them is Mikijiro Hira — Hamlet in the first, 1978 production — who here plays Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who marries his mother and becomes king after likely killing the prince’s father. Several veterans also appear in the metatheater scene, when traveling actors perform a play within the play. But rather than this episode being a bit of light entertainment as usual, here they’ve clearly been encouraged to pour their experience into creating what becomes a magical gem.
In contrast, in his second stab at the title role, Fujiwara annoyingly delivers his lines with exaggerated but meaningless passion, and for no apparent reason melodramatically screams curses at his mother Gertrude (Ran Otori). Fortunately, though, that aberrant acting abates ahead of his brilliant death scene.
Above all, it is Hira’s performance that shines most brightly here. Although his key character of Claudius is usually portrayed as a dishonest grabber, the veteran’s careful and detailed acting shows that even this bad guy who becomes king after marrying Hamlet’s widowed mother has an anguished human side beset with internal contradictions.
However, Hira also acts the role of the ghost of King Hamlet — the specter in the mist in that opening “Who’s there?” scene. As a result, his double casting highlights life’s transience and also how there’s good and bad within us all — or, as Prince Hamlet puts it: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
But as for this production’s great “to be or not to be” question, who could say whether this is Ninagawa’s final “Hamlet” — or not.