Hamlet, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

Jonathan Kent is the director of the Setagaya Public Theatre's Hamlet, and Mansai Nomura takes the name part. But the star of the production is the designer, Paul Brown. The first scene takes place atop a dizzyingly tall rampart, black against an all-black stage, the only contrast an orange flame where the guards warm themselves. (The effect is somewhat spoiled by the surtitles at left and right, which are not only orange too but, rapidly flashing on screens too narrow to hold five iambs, can also make one's head spin.)

The tower is then seen to be the narrow end of a book-like construction that is wheeled to face us. The cover opens: one side is copper, the other a silver-framed crimson box, three compartments wide, three high, in which Claudius, Gertrude, and their court are seated amid a splendour of black brocade and velvet against shiny metal and lipstick red.

The box turns again, to show us Polonius's apartments, the walls composed of hundreds of brownish-gold file drawers, where Ophelia sits in a fuchsia niche lined with dolls. Another lid swings open, and reveals a silver garden where the melancholy Ghost receives his son beneath a twisted tree.

Brown's costumes aren't as inventive or as unified - the men wear Eighties sci-fi gear, while Ophelia wafts about in a polka-dotted kimono. But his castle box, while a treat to behold and a powerful metaphor for the rigidity and secrecy of Elsinore, dominates its human contents, and not just because of its own magnificence. The play moves swiftly, with little pause for thought, and the playing is often cartoonish, with actors constantly erupting into rage or indignation.

Slight, baby-faced Nomura is more teenage action hero than bitter, philosophical prince. It's an error in the right direction for those of us who consider Hamlet's tragic flaw to be rashness rather than indecision, but Nomura is insubstantial and overstated. His soliloquies seem petulant rather than menacing, and during the players sequence he hangs over the king, gloating. Of course, to me this Hamlet was a mime with noise, but I'd find it hard to believe that the Japanese spectators felt the pathos and twilight chill of Shakespeare's poetry.

But other actors show that it is possible to transcend not only language, but gender. Eisuke Sasai's Gertrude is full of mature, womanly charm, though girlish enough to giggle sycophantically at Claudius's pompous pronouncements. And Shinobu Nakamura beautifully represents both Ophelia's valiant innocence and her descent into the torment of a mind as dishevelled as her ripped and filthy clothes. Both men have long experience in the living tradition of onnagata (female impersonation), to which the Japanese have added such variations as plays in which the male parts are played by women while the female parts are played by men. Next year at the Globe, perhaps?

To 6 Sept (020-7863 8000)