Shintoku-Maru, Yukio

Ninagawa

The Barbican, London

The great Japanese director, Yukio Ninagawa, has never been afraid of sailing very close to kitsch or of grazing that tricky border which separates unashamed from shameless sentiment.

Even that marvellous landmark Macbeth, which reimagined the play as its own grieving elegy, replete with the swirl of falling cherry blossom and the sound of the Faure Requiem, almost embarrassed you with its piled- on sensuous beauty. This was Shakespeare turning into Keats.

I think it follows that when Ninagawa is not disciplined by the hard indestructibility of a classic (like Medea, or Yukio Mishima's wonderful modern Noh play, Sotoba Komachi), his trademark effects can begin to look a touch tacky, albeit in a very high-class way. And this, I am afraid, is the case with the production Thelma Holt has brought to the Barbican of Shintoku-Maru, an adaptation of a play by his compatriot dramatist Shuji Terayama (1935-83). Newcomers to Ninagawa, like the lady who was sitting next to me, will be bowled over. Fans may writhe a bit in their disappointment.

It begins magically, up on the gantry, the grating electronic hiss of grindstones and cascades of sparks shooting out over the stage; down below modernity (bikes, motor scooters) meets a kind of timelessness in the shape of a dreamlike procession of Felliniesque freaks and fairground attractions, with a rather creepy cart covered in masks and twirlingly suspended dolls. About halfway through there's another high point when the young hero descends to an underworld of circling candlelit ships carrying their cargos of the dead.

High on the list of the production's liabilities, though, are the music and, well, the play. The setting is contemporary but do we have to have music that makes you feel it's a shame Japan is ineligible for the Eurovision Song Contest? Put it this way; if Ninagawa's ravishing lighting had been on this level of inspiration, we'd have been sitting in the Barbican round a 40-Watt bulb.

The play tells one of those many stories that are not calculated to enhance the self-esteem of stepmothers. Only this one is more soap opera than Phedre. A weepy willowy youth (Tatsuya Fujiwara) pines for his dead mum and reacts to his new anxious-to-please stepmother (superb Kayoko Shiraishi) with a mix of overwrought resentment and attraction. Instead of the awful pitilessness of the Phedre myth, a situation you could put on Neighbours - that is until the author's hang-ups about his own mother send the story into areas of garbled kinky shallowness and kimono-capers as the pair finally acknowledge their love for each other while wearing identical female outfits. There is also a spot of child abuse but none of it has the requisite transgressive, taboo-breaking bite, since the production's sense of the "terrible" is terrible. Tucked away towards the end of a long programme note about Terayama is this obliging little sentence "a search for hidden profundity in his writing is not always fruitful". Now they tell us...

Barbican, to 18 October; tel: 0171-638 8891.

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