Theatre: Eastern light and magic

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The Independent Culture
AT THE start of Ninagawa's Hamlet, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in for some Japanese Kiss Me Kate-style backstage musical of Shakespeare. With the house lights up, the performers are seen in two tiers of dressing-rooms, each with its light-bulbed mirror, flowers and good luck cards. Time checks are called. There is a bustle of preparation.

Ninagawa has always been fond of framing devices, from the pair of ragged crones who, laboriously parting and closing the front panels in his sumptuous Macbeth, seemed like the eternal witnesses of some endlessly recurring tragic ritual, to his idea of presenting The Tempest as a play within a play, overseen by a director who had overtones of another exiled magician, the 15th-century Noh actor-playwright Zeami.

In his Hamlet, there's a constant emphasis on the treacherous gap between social performance and private reality. For Shakespeare's hero, the world of Elsinore comes to resemble a creepily unpublicised theatre where everyone, apart from Horatio, may be acting a part, and where a man like Claudius can "smile, and smile and be a villain".

Ninagawa's production communicates an eerie sense of this. For example, during scene changes, rather than remain in blackout, he brings the lights back on, so that the rows of curtains seem to be caught in the act of a shifty cover-up, as they whiskingly swish from, say, depicting Mt Fuji, to conveying the interior of the court. And these curtains allow for a wonderful affect towards the end of the first half when Hamlet climbs the tall staircase and the drapes suddenly become spookily translucent. Behind them, we see not just the newly arrived players preparing for their performance of The Mousetrap, but those unofficial actors, Gertrude (Mariko Kaga) and Claudius (Tetsuro Sagawa), in the pensive offstage isolation of their separate dressing-rooms, separate cell-like consciousness.

A dashing, charismatic figure, much given to whirling his black cloak around him, Hiroyuki Sanada is an ardent, appealing Hamlet whose "antic disposition" has an impassioned dynamism. The set, however, does few favours to the hero's great confrontation with Gertrude, since here she has to come out of her top-tier dressing-room and descend to the impersonal main stage.

There's no bed, and a much diminished sense of Oedipal violated space, and the ghost is so far away that there's none of the pathos that comes from Gertrude's unwitting proximity to her former husband. But in several little touches, such as the way, after violently grappling with his mother, he tenderly straightens the fallen strap of her nightdress, Sanada powerfully transmits the painful dividedness of Hamlet's feelings.

Some of the stage pictures are lovely, but an English audience may puzzle over their point. For example, Takako Matfu's vulnerable Ophelia is first seen, on what looks to be some special feast day, arranging dolls on a scarlet-carpeted shrine-like a miniature staircase. This ceremonial object then reappears in a giant replica as the stage-set for The Murder of Gonzago with the players distributed like motionless puppets across the steps, until scattered by Claudius's stormy exit. The pictorial connection is clear, the thematic connection culturally opaque or even non-existent.

More of a painter than a prober into meaning (these are productions you simply gasp at rather than mull over), Ninagawa has been bringing work to the UK for 13 years now, and it's becoming clear that he's not the Peter Brook kind of great director, who is constantly reinventing himself from scratch.

Ninagawa plays beguiling variations on the same set of tricks. But what magical tricks they are.