Revenge tragedy, Zen-style: Ryutopia Hamlet (Japan)

Hamlet directed by Kurita Yoshihiro and performed by Ryutopia-Noh Theatre (Teatrul de Operă şi Operetă ‘Elena Teodorini’, 25th April, 2010)

Unfortunately, the live performance of this production was replaced by a film screening because the company, scheduled to tour several European cities, had fallen victim to the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland the week before, and their flight to Europe had been cancelled…

This performance was simultaneously, for a Western audience, the most visually ‘alien’ and the most interpretively ‘traditional’ appropriation of Hamlet that I saw at the festival.  Perhaps this was why it was the best received production, with universal praise from the audience, and universal disappointment that we hadn’t been able to see it in the flesh.  It was a highly accomplished production, localised into traditional Japanese forms.  (To what extent a ‘localised’ adaptation becomes ‘Orientalised’ or ‘exoticised’ in an international setting is a question I’d like to consider further, although not in this blog post.)  The Japanese aesthetic is pleasing to Westerners (think of its influence on interior design): in it, in a very generalising sense, we read simplicity, cleanness, sophistication. One of the most striking things for me about this production was that it made an ugly play into something beautiful.

Ryutopia Noh Theatre re-imagined its Hamlet on a minimalist Noh stage, but like the Shanghai Theatre Academy, it combined different genres: western-influenced ‘spoken theatre’, Japanese Noh and Bunraku (Jōruri) puppet theatre.  These were used interpretively throughout, adding depths of meaning.  The most startling and effective innovation was to have Hamlet, played by the magnificent Kouchi Hirozaku, sit centre stage throughout, cross-legged in long robes, his head shaved like a Buddhist monk, speaking to the audience, but only moving occasionally to turn towards the action taking place behind him.  The effect of this was to make the play all about Hamlet, and as Michael Dobson (Birkbeck University) said the next day, how much closer can you get to the Romantic interpretation of the play than that?!  However, this literal centralisation of Hamlet also took us very far from these traditional interpretations.  April Chaplin noted how it went against every expectation of the ‘mad’ Hamlet running about the stage (think how energetically ‘Dr Who’/David Tennant put on an ‘antic disposition’ at the RSC last year) and yet still Kouchi, perhaps because of his very stillness, exuded insanity.  For me there were three possible interpretations.  Firstly, that everything was taking place in Hamlet’s head, his mad imaginings, or that he was somehow making everything happen, the mad puppet master, or else, he was remembering reality, driven mad by his powerlessness in the situation.  However,further light was thrown on this the next day, when I spoke to one of the Japanese delegates, Kaori Kobayashi (of the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive, Nagoya City University).  ‘Yes, it could be all those things,’ she said diplomatically.  ‘The director [her friend] wants there to be multiple interpretations.  Another interpretation in Japanese culture is that Hamlet, at the moment of his death, remembers the story.’  I am certain that there must be something very Zen in all of this, something about the dualism of life and death, the need to leave behind the ego, but I am not knowledgeable enough about this form of Eastern philosophy to take this further at present.

Gertrude confronts Hamlet (c) Ryutopia Noh Theatre

As I mentioned earlier, the action took place around him as the spoken theatre actors – Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia – continued their performance as if Hamlet wasn’t there.  Claudius, in his very humanness, drew audience sympathy towards him, especially in contrast to Hamlet’s interiority.  Gertrude was regal, aloof, cold; Polonius, a wise courtier rather than a doddering old man. Laertes and Ophelia were young and carefree.   All the cast wore long robes, apparently relocating Denmark to mediaeval or early modern Japan, although Claudius, Laertes and Polonius had blonde hair, referencing the Danes. Claudius also wore a western crown, further destabilising a fixed sense of time or place.  This crossing over of the ‘foreign’ and the ‘familiar’ also raised questions of which was foreign and which was familiar in this setting?

In addition to the main characters, there were also three women in plum coloured kimonos, their faces painted like dolls.  These women were the Jōruri element, their movements imitating puppets, and at key moments they acted out either Hamlet’s thoughts or his actions, such as the final fencing scene.  They also became the Players performing ‘The Mousetrap’, the only time that the other characters became aware of their presence.  This play-within-a-play was dominant, becoming the central focus of the entire production. A musician with a Japanese lute also chanted the narrative at times during the production: this is also an aspect of Jōruri theatre.

A final word is needed about Ophelia.  She was light and girlish, neither oppressed  woman nor strident revolutionary.  However, when she re-entered ‘mad’ she, too, had become a puppet.

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