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“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
So wrote Kipling in his “Ballad of East and West”. But had he the chance to see director Yukio Ninagawa’s double bill of Hamlet and Kafka on the Shore at the Barbican, he might well have revised this famous line, forever robbing students of postcolonial theory and theatre reviewers the world over of a hackneyed opening quote. For in this pair of productions we see the true meeting of west with east – through the interpolation of kabuki elements in Hamlet, and the varied use of European culture and philosophy in an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.
The effect is impressive. Take Hamlet: situated by Ninagawa in nineteenth century Japan, a period in which feudalism was still prevalent and honour paramount. In this context, Hamlet’s troubled desire to avenge his father’s death makes perfect sense; he is upholding the samurai practice of kataki-uchi, or blood revenge. Dramatic scenes are rendered here with the ritualism of kabuki, accompanied by the distinctive trills of the high-pitched nohkan flute and the tension-building hyoshigi wooden clappers of kabuki drama.
This exchange is turned on its head in Kafka on the Shore, in which the Japanese story is lent a predominantly European soundtrack. Satoru Nakata – who suffered an unusual accident as a child, becoming, as Murakami puts it, a “proverbial blank slate”, although gaining the ability to speak with cats – is given deeper significance through the use of the music of Parsifal to accompany his scenes: he is the ‘pure fool’ of Wagner’s opera, redemptive and compassionate. Murakami’s wealth of western literary touchstones are also brought to the fore; Hegel is placed in the mouth of a prostitute while Kafka becomes the inspiration for a hit song. And popular references abound: Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders take a break from whisky and fried chicken to become – in Murakami’s surreal, anything-goes imagination – cat murderers and pimps, vividly realised on stage. The exchange between east and west is deep-rooted and fruitful under Ninagawa’s watch.
Visually, he stuns with a son-et-lumière display lending colour, drama and occasional starkness to the performances. And both sets – designed by Setsu Asakura and Tsukasa Nakagoshi – are particularly noteworthy for their subtle emphasis on themes integral to the plays. The rottenness of Denmark is illuminated in the deterioration of the castle in which the action occurs: battered shoji screens take the place of an arras in hiding the luckless Polonius, while a spectral Hamlet Sr. wanders along crumbling corridors. The set in Kafka is more contemporary, brimming with neon lights and jidohanbaiki vending machines, as well as a real Japanese truck and delivery motorbike. Each scene is contained within a square of clear plastic on wheels – reminiscent of the display cabinets in the Takamatsu library in which Kafka finds himself – and is dragged by a troupe of nimble stagehands, themselves akin to ningyo tsukai bunraku puppeteers. These moving pieces of scenery comment cleverly on the performative nature of the drama unfolding, as well as lending the story a distinct sense of claustrophobia (one brave actor – Rie Miyazawa – is bent uncomfortably beneath the glass for remarkable lengths of time).
The limitations of these containers is significant: when the actors escape their confines they are echoing the novel’s central theme of transgression (made vivid in hints at incest and patricide, as well as the unconscious experiences of the sleepwalking Miss Saeki, or the violent, blacked-out Kafka). Moreover, the plastic vessels mimic the characters’ understanding of their own bodies. “My head was completely empty,” Nakata describes of himself after his accident, “like a bathtub after you pull the plug”. Elsewhere, transgender librarian Oshima describes his body as “a defective container”, drawing on recurring themes of containment and inescapability. (He goes on, in the book, to complain that “[n]obody’s going to give me a standing ovation or anything” – worth mentioning here in light of the enthusiastic ovation this production received on its opening night at the Barbican).
I could go on in praise of the aesthetics – the comic cat costumes in Kafka and the incredibly striking ohinasama set of ornamental dolls to represent Hamlet’s play-within-a-play (accompanied by gagaku court music) – but will take a moment, instead, to devote a word to the actors. Katsumi Kiba as Nakata stood out for his hat-clutching earnestness, and Nino Furuhata’s Kafka felt both helpless and cold-blooded: an enthralling mix. We’ve seen Hamlet in many guises since his creation – from the raving to the calculated, the rebellious to the fragile – but rarely has he been imagined in quite such rockstar-ish terms as in Tatsuya Fujiwara’s representation of him. Here, his long hair and swagger conveyed a nonchalance we don’t usually pair with the uneasy prince. It was a compelling and largely convincing portrayal – until, alas, Ninagawa has Hamlet rape his mother Gertrude, making real Freud’s Oedipal reading of the play. (I am reminded of Nabokov’s comment in an interview with Time in 1969: “It would be fun to hear Shakespeare roar with ribald laughter on being told what Freud (roasting in the other place) made of his plays.”) Elsewhere, Mikijiro Hira, doubling as Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father, gave an unusually vulnerable edge to his roles, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were rendered with a matching idiocy akin to Hergé’s Thomson and Thompson, while Eiji Yokota took a poignant turn as Horatio, the tragedy’s last survivor.
Ninagawa, who celebrates his eightieth birthday this year, has proved himself a great Shakespearean in the past, with increasingly bolder and more original imaginings of the canon. And yet, as his engaging take on Kafka on the Shore demonstrates, he has a keen understanding of contemporary literature, fearlessly tackling the challenge of representing the surrealism of Murakami’s imagination. Through the meeting of different cultures in his creations, he sheds light on the familiar and makes real the metaphysical, all the while testing the limits of the stage. His characters have no trouble escaping the confines of their sets; they take as their example a director well-practised in breaking free from convention and surpassing expectations.