Hamlet, Sadler's Wells, London<br></br>Playing The Victim, Royal Court Upstairs, London

Sayonara - it's the nunnery for me...
Click to follow

Years of reviewing fringe theatre taught me this: when you read the actors' biographies in the programme, you'll always find that at least one of them has been in The Bill. Sometimes all of them have. And if it's a Scottish play (rather than the Scottish Play), they'll have been in Taggart.

What a refreshing change to read instead: "He studied Kyogen under Master Sengoro Shigeyama... a Living National Treasure of the Okura School." Or "He became a pupil of Shikan Nakamura and took the name of Shinobu." Most impressive of all is tonight's Hamlet, Mansai Nomura: "He is the eighth generation of the Kyogen family, the Mansaku company ... an illustrious theatrical line which boasts a 250-year history." (Eat your heart out, you Redgraves!) The Bill might be doing a terrific job in nurturing young acting talent, but it can't really compete with 250-year-old acting dynasties and Living National Treasures.

Jonathan Kent's production of Hamlet, which ran last week at Sadler's Wells, is a dazzling cross-cultural experience. Hamlet has not been transposed to feudal Japan, exactly: we still seem to be in Denmark, it's just that it's now mysteriously populated by Japanese Christians. The cast is Japanese, the ambience somehow still occidental. It's a fascinating spectacle, but somewhat baffling as well.

Paul Brown's set is a marvel: a huge marquetry box, revolving slowly, becomes Elsinore's sheer and forbidding castle wall as the guards appear perilously at the very top, shrieking into the gloom, and the ghost paces below.

Then the box opens up and Claudius's black and gold-robed court is revealed neatly packed inside it, stacked vertically. There is literally no place for Hamlet in this court: he's outside the box.

Another door opens, and Ophelia is revealed, sitting perkily in a neon-bright, doll-lined bedroom like a Tokyo window display. The astonishing onnagata (female impersonator) Shinobu Nakamura, dressed in a kimono dotted with coloured pom-poms, plays her as a repressed and infantilised teenager. There's no hint of panto or camp in these onnagata roles: forget Lily Savage. It isn't even obvious until you read the programme that this is an all-male production. You get the impression that, rather than playing women, Nakamura and Eisuke Sasai, who plays Gertrude, and who has played Blanche DuBois, are seeking to embody the essence of femininity. It sounds dodgy, but in the context of these archetypal and somewhat sketchy roles, it works brilliantly.

Gertrude and Ophelia are almost painfully ingratiating: Nakamura's tittering deference makes perfect sense of the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene - or "Sayonara!" as Hamlet keeps saying. Likewise, Sasai's ever-smiling Gertrude shows that culture and beauty are fragile things as she desperately tries to reconcile the warring factions. Both of them get slapped about a bit. In the second half, the formal structure has collapsed, and Ophelia goes mad on a ruined, post-industrial slag heap, while Gertrude looks on aghast: a terrific portrait of dignity in disaster.

This impressive production has one overwhelming hurdle for non-Japanese people: the surtitles whizz by so fast that it's impossible to read and watch. Finally I decided I had to cut myself adrift from the text, rely on memory and watch the actors for nuances. This had the shocking effect of defamiliarising the play. Kohtaro Yoshida's solid, powerful Claudius is so majestic, and Mansai Nomura's Hamlet such a scapegrace, that it comes as a shock when Claudius kneels down and confesses that he did actually kill his brother. I was starting to think Hamlet was making it all up.

Even ignoring the surtitles, it was easy to see that Haruhiko Joh had the measure of Polonius: this was a captivatingly funny performance, until, with an abrupt slash of his fan, he signalled that the time for laughter was over.

The big loser, however, was Hamlet. It's virtually impossible to judge the quality of the acting in the great soliloquies without knowing exactly what is being said and how. Without the soliloquies, Hamlet is a cipher. It was certainly an energetic and appealing performance; but it was difficult to track the progress of Hamlet's despair.

Soliloquies are equally important in Playing the Victim. Valya works as part of a Russian police team, reconstructing murders and assaults with surprisingly compliant criminals who are required to walk through their crimes on video. Valya literally plays the victim, dropping to the floor when required. (It's part of the joke that he makes no attempt to do this with any verisimilitude; ie by acting.) He works with a brutish sergeant and an apoplectically angry inspector (Paul Hunter) whose grumbling dissatisfaction with his workmates and his country suddenly explodes when a wideboy confesses to "popping" a few bullets into a mate in a sushi bar: "What fucking planet did you fall off, eh?... This one fucking well pops a few bullets into his schoolfriend... what the fucking hell do you want out of life? How you going to get on?"

It's a state-of-the-Russian-nation play, and an extremely funny and well-presented one, for at least three-quarters of its length. But it's padded out with gloomy pauses, slapstick comedy set changes (mostly amusing) and the occasional bit of slo-mo. Andrew Scott, with his unsettling dark eyes and blocky head, makes a droll and sinister Valya. His voice is flat and inflection-free, making him sound a bit of an idiot, but he's quite capable of running rings around everyone else with his crazy and malign logic.

All performances are strong, and Hayley Carmichael's doubling of the sexy WPC Lyuda and Vanya's drab mother is eerily adroit (she's been in The Bill, too). One misjudgement: Amanda Laurence's comic turn as a fake Japanese geisha singing an interminable sub-Butterfly dirge was hilarious first time round, much less so when repeated in its entirety. Hamlet could teach this lot a few things about getting on with it. Sayonara!

'Playing the Victim', Royal Court Upstairs, London SW3 (020 7565 5000) to 4 October

Comments