To be or not to be Japanese

Thelma Holt, who is producing Hamlet in Japanese, says it's not such an odd idea as it sounds

Every time the West End producer Thelma Holt opens a play, she performs a ritual: she lights a candle, usually at the Brompton Oratory, and prays to St Anthony of Padua. But this time, for her new production of Jonathan Kent's Hamlet (in Japanese), she is popping to Carmelites Church in Kensington.

"It's habit. I'm hideously superstitious. I have a St Anthony of Padua on the photocopier now. It has worked better ever since I put it there," says the actress-turned-producer, who once remortgaged her house to pay for a production of Chekhov's The Three Sisters.

Holt, 71, who played a famously naked Lady Macbeth in the Sixties, has brought international theatre to the National Theatre, and was behind many of the RSC successes of the Eighties and Nineties. She is also producing Judi Dench in All's Well That Ends Well at the RSC over Christmas - Dench's return to the company after an absence of 25 years. Why Hamlet in Japanese?

"Shakespeare doesn't belong to us," says Holt. "His drama is beyond language barriers. It sounds beautiful in Japanese. But I wouldn't bring a performance over just because it is in Japanese. It is a fine production, with fine actors. You don't have to read the surtitles to enjoy it, but they can be helpful."

Hamlet was first performed in 1603, and is probably the best known of Shakespeare's works. "I don't even glance at the surtitles - but it is my ninth Hamlet in another language." The director is Jonathan Kent who, as the former joint artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, was responsible for highly acclaimed productions of King Lear and Coriolanus. Kent has been absent from the London stage for a year, during which he directed The Man of La Mancha on Broadway. Hamlet marks his comeback.

"Trying to fuse a British director and a British creative team with Japanese actors is thrilling," explains Holt. It combines "the power of the text with the wonderful visual elements of Japanese performance". The cast is all-male, although "it takes a little time to make up your mind. Boy or girl? By the curtain call, you may wonder - as people did with Ninagawa's Hamlet - why the whole cast isn't on stage."

Nomura Mansai, one of Japan's leading classical actors, plays Hamlet. He last performed the role at Tokyo's Globe Theatre in 1990, and then spent a year with the RSC, holding directing workshops with Mark Rylance. In 2002 he was inaugarated as the artistic director of Tokyo's Setagaya Public Theatre - the company that produces this production, along with Holt and HoriPro Inc.

"I wouldn't dare not light a candle at the moment," Holt says. "Especially as we are rehearsing for a production of The Taming of the Shrew afterwards." Although that one, at least, is not in Japanese.

'Hamlet' is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020-7863 8000) from 28 August to 6 September

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