A far cry from the spectacular and super-modern Kafka on the Shore that makes up the other half of Ninagawa Company’s visiting dramatic diptych, their take on Hamlet is a nonetheless impressive piece of theatre. Set in a poor quarter of 19th century Japan, the ghost appears not on Elsinore’s grand battlements but at tattered windows. Although there are moments of court glamour, including a colourful traditional hinamatsuri as part of the play within the play, it is for the most part a stripped-back and atmospheric adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy.
Stylistically the piece calls to mind Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Throne of Blood’, a stunning film adaptation of Macbeth. The fog creeps in from every crevice of the set, creating something eerie and tense in the state of Denmark. Perhaps because Hamlet is such a well-known play and the production sticks so faithfully to the book, the Japanese language provides little language barrier. It in fact adds many layers to the drama as the quick, short words work incredibly well in the play’s scenes of fevered whispering or fast paced aggression. The actors bring new life and emotion with their expressive performances and frequent wailing.
What’s most impressive about this Hamlet is Motoi Hattori’s lighting design which cuts through the fog with bright white beams and facilitates scene changes within a static set – red light for Claudius’ court and blue for almost everything else. The cast, including Tatsuya Fujiwara as one of the youngest but most effective Hamlets I’ve yet seen, is almost universally strong. There are a few bizarre moments such as a chaotic scene where all six sliding doors are repeatedly opened and closed and the disappointment of Claudius’ comic-baddie persona in the first half but otherwise this is Hamlet more or less as we know it.
Mikijiro Hira(Claudius) redeems himself after the interval with an exceptionally powerful scene in which he pours a bucket of water over his head and stands shivering, his shirt sticking to his ageing body, self-flagellating for his sins. The relationship between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude (Ran Ohtori) is mined for all its detail and becomes shockingly incestuous. Another striking moment is a scene between Hamlet and Hikari Mitsushima’s fragile and waif-like Ophelia, he in black she in white, matching each other word for word. Ninagawa’s Hamlet looks good and leaves and impression but this traditional performance is merely a hint of what the company is capable of. Programmed next to Kafka on the Shore it pales in comparison.