‘Epic’ is the only word I can use to describe Yukio Ninagawa’s Cymbeline at the Barbican. The story, the cast, the set, the music… epic. In fact, since I saw the play last week, I’ve been searching for more words to use in order to write this post, but I’ve been struggling.
Sitting right up in the gallery, I looked down on the action and became lost in another world before the play even began. All of the cast were on stage when the audience entered, in a mock-dressing room setting, just milling around. When the play was about to begin, they all lined up, ripped off their dressing gowns and yukatas, and revealed their costumes. The set dramatically swirled around and changed from the dressing room into a palace setting (later swirling around again to become various other settings, including a cave). Once the action kicked in, I soon forgot that the cast were speaking Japanese and I was reading surtitles. It was Shakespeare at it’s finest, no matter what language it was in.
The only negative comments I would have about the production were that it was very, very long, and that the theatre was incredibly hot. Other than those minor things, it was faultless.
Before seeing this production of Cymbeline I had heard wonderful things about director Yukio Ninagawa, who is renowned for his Japanese language productions of Shakespeare plays as well as Greek tragedies and modern Noh plays. Ninagawa made his debut as a director in 1969 with Shinjo afururu keihakusa (‘genuine frivolity’) and has directed over 60 plays since. Ninagawa and his theatre company are closely associated with the Barbican theatre in London, and Ninagawa has directed a number of plays in the theatre including a Grand Kabuki interpretation of Twelfth Night in 2009, which I wish I had seen. Thelma Holt, CBE, a Producer who has worked with Ninagawa for 25 years, says, “I wish that all young people when they see their first Shakespeare play, could be lucky enough to see a Ninagawa production. They would then be truly hooked for the rest of their lives.” I can’t help but agree!
In the Cymbeline programme, Ninagawa comments, “Whenever I direct a Shakespeare, I always feel a small sense of shame. What occasions this emotion? I believe it is attributable to a recurring worry and fear: do I really understand a culture that is so very different from my own? My fellow countrymen have appeared in all the Shakespeare productions I have directed and this may well have contributed and added to my small sense of shame.” The director goes on to say that, until this production of Cymbeline, he has never been guilty of changing any words of Shakespeare in his productions. However, in this particular play, Ninagawa changed “cedar tree” to “pine tree” as a nod to the solitary pine tree that remained standing in Miyagi after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku. In the final scene of Cymbeline everyone gathers in front of the tree, resolving to come together and forgive. Ninagawa said that he wanted to “find hope in this pine tree” and that he hoped Shakespeare would forgive him for his minor alteration.
All images courtesy The Barbican, © Takahiro Watanabe