Twelfth Night, Barbican Theatre, London

A classic, lost in translation
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The Independent Culture

Shakespeare has had some help with this one. Instead of simply turning up in Illyria, victim of the shipwreck she believes has claimed her twin, Viola is shown during the disaster – a ship sails downstage, then is tossed about by stagehands covered with a wave-patterned cloth while, at a cabin window, she flutters a tiny white hand. Lines have been added (English titles on an electronic screen), to adapt the plot to the same actor's playing Feste and Malvolio, to spell out the characters' motives, or to insert what are presumably Japanese proverbs ("He is like a fish in a well who does not know there is an ocean to swim in").

The observation applies to more than the smug steward: While Shakespearean fish, as Yeats said, "swam the sea, far away from land," Japanese ones seem never to have left the goldfish bowl. In adapting Twelfth Night to its own style, the Shochiku Grand Kabuki has produced a work which is, at first, charmingly quaint, but then becomes cloying and repetitive. Makeup, business, even stage names are handed down in kabuki, whose tradition-bound practices are antithetical to Shakespeare's scope and sweep, his moments that are unexpected and irrelevant and pierce the heart. Even the set is full-on cliche – a tea house, an arched bridge, and, of course, copious cherry blossoms – though I did like the ridiculous little moon, an orange circle on a cloud, that looked exactly like a fried egg.

Much of the all-male company's acting is traditionally stylised, in ways that are tedious (Sir Andrew Aguecheek, on entering, grins at us and swishes his kimono sleeves about to show he is foolish) or perplexing (the duke, in a long, thin moustache and goatee and tall, pointed black hat, screeching in lovelorn agony, resembles a sinister wizard). Olivia, old enough to be her beloved's father, is rigid and stuffy. But Onoe Kikunosuke V is an endearing Viola and Sebastian, a plaintive figure whose suffering is the only sweetness in this version, which abjures tenderness for hearty comedy. The star performer, at least to Western eyes, is Ichikawa Kamejiro II, a hilariously bossy, flirtatious, smug Maria, who dances a little flamenco of rage to express her fury at having been told off.

While it's always interesting to see how other cultures interpret Shakespeare, it's usually more rewarding if they illuminate, rather than compress, his vision. Incidentally, traditional Japanese politeness was sadly wanting on the first night, before a heavily Oriental audience. Though the Barbican's website posts a "sold out" notice, numerous seats were empty (unwanted corporate gifts, perhaps?). One hopes that holders of unwanted tickets for the rest of the run will return them so as not to deprive those who want to take advantage of this rare visit.

To 28 March (0845 120 7554; www.barbican.org.uk)

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