A couple of months ago, I saw an esteemed director – Terry Hands – direct Hamlet. Yesterday, I saw another Hamlet by another famous director: Yukio Ninagawa. This was, in fact, Ninagawa’s eighth Hamlet and his second time working with Tatsuya Fujiwara, who first played Hamlet for Ninagawa in 2003 at the age of 21. It was, though, my first time seeing a Ninagawa production and I’m delighted to have had the chance to see his work. In many respects, the show was, perhaps surprisingly, conservative in scope: Kevin Quarmby, with a hint of dissatisfaction, described it as ‘a Western production performed in Japanese’. Nonetheless, there were some really effective moments. I discussed the set of the Hands Hamlet here; since the Ninagawa set was also interesting, I’ll offer a few thoughts by way of comparison.
At the start of the production, a surtitle board informed us: “This is a poor quarter of Japan in the 19th century, when Hamlet was first introduced to Japan. Now in the 21st century, we Japanese begin our Hamlet“. This is a fascinating way to begin: ‘this’ and ‘now’, 19th and 21st century, are brought together, even as they seem to be kept apart. The core of the set suggested the ‘poor quarter’ – shafts of light broke through the dusty windows of apparently abandoned buildings – but the court was, probably appropriately, opulent: an elaborate chandelier hung from the ceiling, and the set was bathed in a red glow. Much later, the production seemed temporarily to forget itself and the sound of a helicopter was used to signify an approaching army: in the main, though, a 19th century setting was maintained.
I really enjoyed how often the set offered an echo of an earlier event. When, at the end of the production, the youthful Fortinbras (Kenshi Uchida) appeared on the upper level, it recalled the first appearance of old Hamlet’s Ghost (Mikijiro Hira). Earlier, after delivering his ‘To be or not to be’ speech – here, with Hikari Mitsushima’s Ophelia onstage throughout – Hamlet threw open the doors around the edge of the stage looking for spies: this recalled the scene in which the Ghost urges Hamlet and his companions to ‘swear’ (each time he spoke a door would open to reveal a glow of light). There was a sense, then, of Hamlet’s Ghost being present during the main course of the action and yet this was achieved without having him onstage in a way which would probably feel hackneyed (though he did appear, as expected, in the closet scene).
But the most memorable and brilliant staging choice was saved for the mousetrap. After a dumb show which Claudius did not seem to be paying attention to, a giant curtain was pulled down to reveal a magnificent set styled like a Hinamatsuri doll set. It was, by far, the most theatrical moment of the production and it reminded me (in a way that plays sometimes forget to do) of the joy that can come when you know you are watching a play.
Above: a tiered Hina doll set.