Hamlet, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

When you look back on the productions of the celebrated Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, it's always the scenic effects and staging concepts that spring to mind rather than the human contribution of the actors. With his Macbeth, say, it's the cherry blossom that swept elegiacally through the proceedings and the framing device of the crones who parted and closed the front panels as though eternal witnesses to some endlessly recurring tragic ritual.

When you look back on the productions of the celebrated Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, it's always the scenic effects and staging concepts that spring to mind rather than the human contribution of the actors. With his Macbeth, say, it's the cherry blossom that swept elegiacally through the proceedings and the framing device of the crones who parted and closed the front panels as though eternal witnesses to some endlessly recurring tragic ritual.

The feeling that Ninagawa is primarily a great painter rather than an acute prober of meaning has been particularly strong whenever he has worked with English-speaking casts - as in his Peer Gynt and in the Sir Nigel Hawthorne King Lear, in which a potentially first-rate hero had to compete for our attention with (among other things) the distracting crash of the rocks that plummeted down during the storm scene. A "hard rain", to be sure.

Ninagawa is now back at the Barbican with another English-speaking company and a Hamlet that is, by his standards, extraordinarily austere and restrained, conveying the text with a greater clarity and attention to nuance than we've hitherto been led to hope for. Six years ago, he brought across a Tokyo production of the play that emphasised the treacherous gap in Claudius's Denmark between social performance and private reality by giving us backstage glimpses of Elsinore as a tier of actors' dressing-rooms. This time, he trusts us to be able to pick up themes like that without overweening interpretive assistance. The sense of the court as a prison is bleakly suggested by presenting it as a sparse forest of taut, vertical barbed wires and the conformity of the courtiers in this new regime is underlined by the uniformity of their cassock-like red coats. The black of Hamlet's garb is more than ever a provocative statement.

The Prince is played by Michael Maloney who possesses, in abundance, the right qualities for this role. He can project a gentle nobility of spirit and hectic passion. He has the art (singularly lacking in the current RSC Hamlet) of offering the audience the gift of unguarded intimacy. He can deliver a soliloquy with a softness of intensity that pulls you straight into Hamlet's nervous system and he's able to perform feats with the verse (running several lines together, say, in an impetuous cascade) that create the impression of racing, ardent intellect without seeming mannered or premeditated. He also has the knack of appearing at once classical and contemporary, and of shifting seamlessly between barbed playfulness and burning earnestness.

If I have a reservation, it's that Maloney's Hamlet does not sufficiently make the audience feel that the hero has been released into a different spiritual dimension when he returns from the sea voyage.

The production sometimes skirts melodrama. I could have happily dispensed with the claps of thunder that mark each of the steps towards doom in the final scene. There are puzzling features, too. Why the topless male Player Queen in the inset play? But for once with Ninagawa, it's the performances (the quietly disturbing mood-switches, say, of Laura Rees's fine, unstagy Ophelia) that will remain uppermost in the memory.

To 27 November

(0845 120 7550)

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