THEATRE / When East meets best: Yukio Ninagawa is a hallowed name in the global village of classical drama. As he brings his 'Peer Gynt' to these shores, Irving Wardle explains why

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The Independent Culture
BEFORE Yukio Ninagawa's arrival at the 1985 Edinburgh Festival, Japanese drama had made precious little headway on the British stage. Noh theatre was enticing to read about, but come the thing itself - as in the 1960s World Theatre Seasons - and even spectators who had done their homework found themselves up against something impenetrably alien.

Then came Ninagawa's 'cherry-blossom' Macbeth and the veil fell away. Text and scenic language were Japanese but the emotions were directly accessible. The production was obviously, piercingly beautiful, and it became a legend overnight. It was followed by other shows at yearly intervals until 1991; they revealed other sides of Ninagawa, not all as entrancing as his Shakespearian debut. Now his English-

language, international-cast production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt reaches the Barbican before moving on to Manchester and Tokyo. Once again he is breaking new ground.

With his first three shows, Ninagawa emerged as the most successful living exponent of theatrical cross-fertilisation. Evidently this was also how he impressed his compatriots. For instance, when he engaged the Greek actress Aspassia Papathanassiou to play Jocasta in Oedipus Rex (a bilingual production not seen in the West), a leading Tokyo actor approached her afterwards to ask where she had acquired her mastery of Kabuki. With Macbeth and then with Medea and The Tempest, British spectators saw a familiar masterpiece refracted through an unrelated aesthetic. The plays shed their local associations and entered a zone of universal myth.

Pulling this off requires an artistic intelligence on the heroic scale. It succeeded in Ninagawa's case thanks to his manifestly passionate response to the material, and his ability to forge a Euro-Japanese scenic vocabulary. On his stage, samurai armour, glottal vibrato delivery and Buddhist ceremony mingled with the music of Handel, Faure and Samuel Barber, and the sobbing cadences of Japanese pop songs. The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth was at once a present-tense dramatic character and a Noh- theatre ghost. In other hands, such effects could have cancelled each other out. In Ninagawa's they reinforced one another.

His is also a theatre of tremendous gestures. No one who saw his version of Medea in the Adam courtyard of Edinburgh University in 1986 will forget the death exit of Mikijiro Hira racing up the granite steps, a sword glittering above his head, and vanishing through the black doorway as the chorus flew after him with cries of lamentation. Or his final appearance, enthroned in the dragon chariot high over the balustraded roof, making his departure into the night sky.

If this suggests a man spicing up old plays to excite the jaded public appetite, it is because I haven't mentioned what lies behind the exotic effects. Western drama delivers a present-tense narrative. Noh drama recalls events that are long past. In Ninagawa's productions the two traditions come together so that you see the story in double focus. The past runs in tandem with the present; actuality with dream.

You watched Macbeth through a semi- transparent latticed wall which had the effect of emotionally distancing the action. Horrendous violence took place in a lyrically delicate setting. You saw a man wading into blood, becoming a monster; while at the same time you were permitted to share his dream of heavenly felicity, in which the victims are no more than phantoms. As in Monteverdi's Poppea, a hero murders his way into paradise. And when he fell under a trunk-cleaving blow from Macduff it was to the accompaniment of Barber's Adagio for Strings. The prevailing atmosphere was not one of tragedy but of elegiac sadness.

Similarly, in The Tempest (1988), Prospero inhabits a waking dream. As director of a desert-island Noh stage he recruits the other characters into his private theatricals assisted by a stage-managerial Ariel. When disengaged, he takes a seat by the musicians, following the events in a prompt copy as though his own future were already down on paper. Then comes his little magic show for the lovers, and the key to Ninagawa's own production. Beginning with a sequence of common chords in steadily mounting crescendo, the masque turns into a choral ballet developing into an intense, yearning image of perfect human harmony. At its height Prospero recalls the plot against his life - the only event outside his theatrical control - and cancels the ideal vision to deal with earthly reality.

At that high point, Ninagawa parted company with European classics in favour of Japanese work, beginning with Chikamutsu's Suicide for Love (1989). This was a real eye-opener: partly for its variant treatments of suicide from slapstick to pathetic realism; and partly for its wide-angle view of Japanese society, with courtesans and government officials swept into wild lantern-lit parties and police raids, all held together by the power of money. Unlike Ninagawa's earlier productions, though, it was untouched by theatrical poetry. And subsequently, in Yukio Mishima's Sotoba Komachi (1990) and Kunio Shimizu's Tango at the End of Winter (1991; his first English-language show), the paradoxes of time and other themes of his earlier productions returned minus the stage magic. Like any other director, it seemed that Ninagawa was only as good as his text. If the text was as clammily sentimental as Mishima's or as tricksy as Shimizu's, he had no power to transcend it.

Tango came about as one of the world- orbiting projects of Thelma Holt's management. Miss Holt dislikes theatre festivals. She believes in a continuous freemasonry between artists of different countries, periodically moving into each other's theatres. These are good ideas; and I wish I had felt more enthusiasm for her first Ninagawa collaboration. Peer Gynt is her second. This time he is certainly on to a masterpiece, a poet, and a hero whose life is a dream.

'Peer Gynt': Barbican, EC2 (071-638 8891), nine perfs from Thurs; Palace Theatre, Manchester (061-236 9922), 17-19 Mar.

(Photograph omitted)