Yukio Ninagawa's quest for the perfect Hamlet: Why his eighth production is not his final one

The giant of Japanese theatre is bringing his 'Hamlet' to London

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The Independent Culture

"There are, of course, very great pieces – the ancient Greek tragedies, for example – but they are no match for Hamlet." We are in the Saitama Arts Theatre, his base just north of Tokyo, and Yukio Ninagawa, the internationally acclaimed director, is reflecting on why he keeps returning to this play. His eighth stab at it (surely a record) had opened the previous night. Don't imagine, though, that he's through with it yet.

"Eight times is not enough," he protests. "A play that means different things to me, depending on my age." He points out that the first line is, "Who's there?", spoken by a guard on the misty battlements. This tragedy, he suggests, challenges us all, on a profound level, with the same question of identity.

Ninagawa turns 80 this year. In August, it will also be the 30th anniversary of his breakthrough on to the international stage at the 1985 Edinburgh Festival. The achingly beautiful Samurai Macbeth, his first production to travel overseas, became an overnight legend, disturbing the divide between drama and rite, secular and sacred, oriental and occidental.

The bloody tragedy unfolded like a grievous ritual of loss framed within a giant Buddhist altar to the elegiac swirl of falling cherry blossom and the strains of Fauré's Requiem. With its ravishing fusion of Japanese and Western codes and traditions, it sealed Ninagawa's reputation as a master magician of inter-cultural theatre. His frequent visits, since then, have enthralled a generation. These continue now at the Barbican in London, where his company is about to present the compelling new Hamlet, followed by a stage version of Haruki Murakami's novel Kafka on the Shore.

The director has been in frail health lately. In a wheelchair and with a nasal tube, he was being ferried between theatre and hospital when I was in Tokyo in January. Sadly, during my short trip, there was no rehearsal for me to sit in on. Ninagawa is famously uncompromising and meticulous in his direction and, by all accounts, there has been no softening on that front.

But I was able to observe at close quarters his strength of character. For example, in the afternoon prior to the first performance of Hamlet, the cast and crew assembled in the auditorium for a Shinto blessing on the production – the priest, at the temporary shrine on stage, waving the shide, the traditional mop-like wand of zigzag paper streamers, for purification. Though it can't have been at all pleasant for him, Ninagawa, in his habitual black, resolutely rose to his feet whenever the ceremony required it.

London saw a couple of Ninagawa's earlier Hamlets. There was the eerie ambiguity of his 1998 production where two tiers of actors' dressing rooms doubled as the poky private retreats of the characters in Elsinore, emphasising the play's self-conscious preoccupation with pretence, concealment and theatricality. Six years later, he directed Michael Maloney in a more austere Elsinore-as-prison version.

His Hamlet, this time, is the charismatic Tatsuya Fujiwara, who made his extraordinary professional debut on the Barbican stage at 15, as the overwrought, incestuous step-son in Ninagawa's 1997 production of the modern Japanese play Shintoku-Maru, the first of three indelible appearances here. At 21, he was the youngest Hamlet in Japanese theatre history – again for his mentor – clawing at the wire enclosure of a traverse set resembling a basket-ball court, "James Dean-like", according to one report

For the new production "I told him to forget everything he did back then and focus on his inner voice", says Ninagawa. The result is a thrillingly intense performance that runs the gamut from a wounded frenzy of Oedipal resentment (the closet scene with Gertrude is tempestuous) to wry, hard-won spiritual grace. He heads a top-notch cast that encompasses newcomers (a sweetly fragile Ophelia from rising screen star Hikari Mitsushima) and great veterans such as Mikijiro Hira, who stunned us 30 years ago with the stylised, savage grandeur and grief of his Medea in Ninagawa's ritualistic all-male production. He doubles as the Ghost and a particularly complex, self-flagellating Claudius.

The production has a flamboyant sweep and an eclectic range of styles. The play-within-the-play, for example, is presented in stately, ornate Kabuki fashion on a tiered platform with a formality that feels like veiled subversion. The overarching idea is that we are watching this Hamlet at its final rehearsal and that this is taking place in a dilapidated arcade of the row houses where the poor lived in the late 19th century, when the play was first introduced to Japan. There's a spooky, disconcerting sense of incongruity – a vivid, knowing version of the tragedy set against, and colonising, the deserted, broken-windowed homes of people to whom the arrival of this mind-blowing play had meant nothing. "I'm trying to mix an impression of how Hamlet was received back then with the theme of our evolving responses to it," the director reveals.

Ninagawa has, himself, played a key part in that evolution and even if this latest framing conceit relies on an explanatory surtitle and could be pushed further, you reckon that, in his 80th year, he has certainly earned the right to take the long view. One problem for Japan in appropriating Shakespeare was the rigid separation of its ancient theatrical traditions from the emergent forms.

His detractors claim that Ninagawa panders to a foreign taste for the exotic. But it was to make Shakespeare more accessible to his compatriots that he began to draw on traditional techniques from Noh and Kabuki and to revitalise them in his productions. And he was reacting against the dominance of the shingeki ("new drama") movement. "The gap between the intellectual and the general public has been one of the great misfortunes of modern Japan," he says.

Ninagawa cut his teeth as a director in the politically radical theatre of the late Sixties and early Seventies, and you could argue that an oppositional thread runs right through his career. Take his ongoing creative riposte to the pernicious rise of ageism in Japan. In 2006, he founded Saitama Gold, a troupe for over-55s with little or no theatre background, recruited by open audition. Out of more than a thousand applicants, 48 were picked (average age now 76) and given intensive training.

I am happy to report that Ninagawa's health is improving – proof of which is that, since I was in Japan, he has directed this Saitama Gold troupe in a large-scale production of Richard II where they danced a tango with members of Saitama Next, his company of young actors. It marks the 30th production in his progression through the entire Shakespearean canon.

Clearly, there's no stopping him. Thelma Holt, his devoted UK producer, tells me that future plans include bringing over a new Macbeth that will be quite different from the one that put him on the map here. This would bring the wheel resplendently full circle – though I think we should look out beforehand for that ninth Hamlet.

'Hamlet', 21-24 May; 'Kafka on the Shore', 28-30 May, at the Barbican, London (020 7638 8891)