Part 2: Ninagawa. A case in point?
Yukio Ninagawa’s King Lear was a brave collaboration with the RSC, featuring top British actors (Nigel Hawthorne, Sian Thomas, Michael Maloney) and a Japanese actor (Hiroyuki Sanada). Famously it met with much disappointment when it opened in London, not least for the perceived lack of fury in Hawthorne’s lead (“Wurzel Gummidge” said the Daily Mail; “little more than pique in his rages” wrote the Times) but also for the seemingly awkward union of Noh theatre elements with the Shakespeare text.
The irregularly falling stones in the storm scene drew much consternation (“this device is thrilling until it is overdone,” wrote Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times), though its expressionism could in truth hardly be perceived as “Japanese”. The minimalist set, the percussionist soundtrack, and some of the costumes were certainly motifs of Japanese old stagecraft. “This Lear may be played in English, but in every other sense it is really a translation,” wrote Sheridan Morley in the Spectator.
I actually saw the production at the Barbican and looking back on it now, I cannot believe that Hiroyuki Sanada played the Fool, so small and acrobatic that character is. Since that time I have witnessed Sanada’s film performances and revelled in his charisma, stunning looks and masculinity. I do recall his accent being rather strong, though, and this has been retained until the present (see The White Countess). Sanada’s Fool drew mixed reactions from critics (“an inarticulate intruder from another culture” was Benedict Nightingale’s extraordinary judgment; “a virtuoso performance, but too blatantly at odds with its surroundings” was from the Sunday Telegraph), though he was no stranger to Shakespeare (having played Hamlet with Ninagawa before).
Perhaps Ninagawa took comfort in the attacks on the great Isamu Noguchi’s designs for Gielgud’s 1955 Lear. Sadly, a production that seeks these kinds of cross-cultural tropes and indulgences can often end up running the gauntlet of kitsch. Whereas seeing a classic play in a new context (such as new settings of time or place) can be refreshing and often works well, mixing in theatre can be as dangerous as chemistry.
Ninagawa brought his Twelfth Night to London this year, this time in Japanese and with a full Japanese cast. Apparently not having learnt his lesson or stubborn to the last, Ninagawa again threw in ostensibly ‘Japanese’ elements – in this case casting the play as a kabuki performance, complete with (all-male) Shochiku masters in the roles. “Less a happy marriage than a shotgun affair” was Lyn Gardner’s opinion for the Guardian.
There have been fewer accusations of cheap cultural borrowings in some of his other productions, such as a Macbeth and the 2004 Hamlet with Michael Maloney. Paul Taylor wrote in his review of the latter for the Independent something which is interesting to consider here:
When you look back on the productions of the celebrated Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, it’s always the scenic effects and staging concepts that spring to mind rather than the human contribution of the actors.
British critics clearly need that humanity.