Get thee to the Barbican

Robert Butler asks the great Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa why he's having a third stab at 'Hamlet'
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The Independent Culture
To the casual observer, they probably look as if they are just another bunch of Japanese tourists. It's mid-afternoon at Heathrow's Terminal 3 and the group, filing into the main concourse after a 12-hour flight, are led by a bald, genial figure who greets a red-haired woman in shades with a big hug.

Regular theatregoers might look at this man twice, and then remember his performance as Bottom in Yukio Ninagawa's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the mechanicals breeze in on motorbikes and proceed to cook up a stir-fry. He was Stephano, too, in Ninagawa's Tempest, which was set on the blustery island of Sado, where Neami, the founder of Noh theatre, had been exiled in the 15th century. This year, Goro Daimon is in London to play the gravedigger and the Player King in Ninagawa's Hamlet.

The woman receiving the big hug has been responsible for introducing us to all three of those productions. She also brought Ninagawa's Macbeth and Medea to the National, his Tango to the End of Winter to the Piccadilly and his Peer Gynt and Shintoku-Maru to the Barbican. Thanks to Thelma Holt, London has been lucky to see a substantial body of work by one of the world's great directors. Next year, she will co-produce, with the RSC and Saitama and Point Tokyo companies, Ninagawa's King Lear. Nigel Hawthorne will play Lear.

Hamlet and Ophelia, along with Ninagawa, the lighting designer and 25 technicians, arrived in London earlier in the week. As the other 24 actors stand round their stack of Samsonite luggage, it's tempting to guess who plays who. The broad, bearded, middle-aged figure with his sunglasses tucked into the top of his shirt was last here as Oberon, breathing green powdered tea from the back of his mouth to give the effect of a flame. This time, Tetsuro Sagawa plays Claudius and the Ghost. Next to him stands an athletic young man in sports jacket, jeans and white T-shirt. He's Elji Yokota, who's playing Laertes. Helpfully, he points out the others to me. The tall, willowy guy with a hairband and an orange Valentino T-shirt plays Fortinbras. The elegantly bored woman in the dark glasses, giving a passable imitation of a movie star, is Mariko Kaga. She's playing Gertrude. And the older, mild-faced figure, Yoshisada Sakaguchi? "He's my father," says Yokota. "Polonius."

"Konnichiwa," says Thelma Holt to the company, once they are on the bus. From then on, she speaks through an interpeter. When the coach pulls onto the M4, the driver asks the actors to sit down; but he keeps addressing them in English, and no one pays any attention. The guest-registration cards, collected in advance from the hotel, are handed out. When the bus reaches the Strand Palace Hotel, Thelma Holt's general manager will already have the keys to the rooms and Thelma Holt will wait in the Mask Bar for 15 minutes in case anything is wrong with anyone's room. In fact, she waits a good hour in the Mask Bar, but that has more to do with a few straight vodkas than any excessive concern about whether the company has hot or cold running water.

The next time I see these actors is when they explode on to the Barbican stage during the technical rehearsal. Ninagawa's production of Hamlet is performed in Japanese. But you could slip in at any moment and know exactly which scene they were performing. The dashing Hiroyuki Sanada, star of action movies in Japan, stands apart as Hamlet. He wears a black cloak which he swirls over his shoulder. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand together. One wears a blue cloak, one wears a yellow one. This is the moment when they tell him the players have arrived. There's a burst of music. Suddenly the bald, genial figure of Goro Daimon strides in. Again, he's at the head of a company of actors. This time he gives Hamlet the big hug that the previous day he had given Thelma Holt.

Other than that, this is a very different entrance. When they crossed the concourse at Terminal 3, no one did cartwheels. As they waited patiently outside Cafe Select for the coach to turn up, no one played pipes. Yesterday, they were an anonymous bunch in jeans and trainers. Today, they are an exuberantly motley crowd in a variety of colours and patterns. Half of their kit is strapped to the outside of their luggage: you can see kettles, drums, reed hats, banners, dry flowers and large cut-outs of cherry-blossom trees. There are no large white labels stuck on the sides of the cases saying "Ninagawa". They aren't necessary. His signature is written all over them.

Ninagawa sits in the middle of the stalls. He interrupts rehearsals by clapping his hands. He snaps out instructions, makes them go back, and then makes them go back again. You only need to watch him for five minutes to see two Ninagawas. There's the brusque martinet shouting from the stalls and shoo-ing someone out of his way. And there's the gentle charmer who ambles down to the stage and smiles easily. At 63, he's slight, spry and alert. He wears crumpled black trousers, a black jacket, black sweatshirt, and black narrow-rimmed oval glasses. A tidy, fastidious man, with a taste for breathtaking extravagance.

In his production of Hamlet, the arrival of the players at Elsinore is a good example. Within a matter of seconds, they transform the mood, look and tempo of the play. I saw them rehearse the first couple of acts. Each scene had a simplicity and size - a splendour, really - that was distinctly its own. Ninagawa is famous for his visual effects. His Macbeth was set in a 16th-century samurai world, and Banquo was murdered in a bower of cherry blossom. In the opening scene of The Tempest, he sunk a naturalistic vessel in a storm of lights and sheets and ropes. At the end of his all- male Medea, the lavishly costumed Medea departed on a dragon-drawn chariot, hoisted up by a crane into clouds of smoke. But these images - as reviewers are quick to point out - are not extraneous. They return you to the heart of the play. The text may be in Japanese, but the subtext is immediately accessible.

The key word when describing Ninagawa is "meets": East meets West; ritual meets psychological realism; Kabuki meets Stanislavski. This fusion allows him to put across emblematic qualities - through colour, space, lighting, costume - without losing character details. "Blocking" is too dull a word to describe the way he choreographs. Sometimes the cast move as individuals, sometimes as a chorus.

This is the third time he has directed Hamlet. The first time was 20 years ago, when Hamlet was played by the father of the actress now playing Ophelia. The second was 10 years ago. In a break from rehearsals, Ninagawa explains over a cup of cold barley tea why he is having a third go. "Every time I direct it, I fail, I'm not satisfied. If you emphasise one particular aspect in the interpretation, then it goes away from the text. The problem with the mother. The problem with the father. Political problems. Sexual problems. You have to have them all, otherwise you can't catch Hamlet. If you make one aspect too big then the work gets warped. There's always something elusive, and you try to grab it and it goes."

Could you give an example? He pauses a while. It's been a long day. Three fire alarms have gone off. One was set off by the steam rising as they were ironing the curtains. The British stage hands have gone home. His own technicians are staying on late. On the canteen banquette next to him, the lighting designer is falling asleep. Next to him sits Gertrude, regal in red, impassively smoking a cigarette. Ninagawa smiles at his hesitation in answering. "Hamlet lost a father suddenly, and lost a mother. He became alone. He's now a young man who has to think about everything. The problem with Ophelia. The problem of a nation at war. He has to think on his own. And he discovers a lot of things. All at the same time. All these problems are put in the one play. Like a chocolate-box full of different chocolates. We want to treat every problem equally. This balance of the text is like a beautiful Mozart symphony."

For this Hamlet, Ninagawa has devised a startling effect. The actors emerge from their dressing rooms, which are decorated with cards, flowers and make-up, to come on stage and perform. When Hamlet has a soliloquy, you catch glimpses of the other actors in their dressing-rooms at the back of the stage. "I often do this kind of style when I do Shakespeare. It gives it some distance. It shows that these are Japanese actors playing Shakespeare characters. It's difficult. It's a different language, different customs, different culture, different period. So that embarrassment, I hope I might be able to get rid of. For a Japanese audience, it may convince them that this isn't such a distant thing."

British audiences are something else entirely. "The reason I'm so scared is that there's an audience like you. There's nothing more scary than bringing Hamlet here."

'Hamlet': Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), to Thurs.