June 24, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Titus Andronicus (Ninagawa Company) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Yukio Ninagawa is a very famous director, though I should admit I’d never actually heard of him! He’s Japanese, directed ‘King Lear’ for the RSC a few years back and is currently putting on Japanese interpretations of every single Shakespeare play in turn. It seems obvious, then, that he should be contributing to the Complete Works Festival!

If the regular RSC audience were going to see one international Shakespeare play this year, it would have been this one. Ninagawa is a classicist who puts on big, epic productions that are highly stylised and very faithful to the text- judging by the surtitles, which are Shakespeare’s lines, he followed the script of ‘Titus’ almost line for line.

This was Big Shakespeare, with an enormous cast and an enormous stage, dominated by a massive replica of the famous Romulus and Remus statue. The stage was a brilliant white, with towering walls and, later, huge flowers and trees for actors to hide behind.

I enjoyed this one, but I do think it was somewhat overhyped. Kotaro Yoshida was an excellent Titus, who gave a relatively restrained but highly emotive performance. The style of the performance was mostly one of high energy emotion, with characters weeping, wailing, screaming and beating their breasts one moment and yelling in celebration the next. It took a little while to get used to, but once you’d accepted that that was the style, it became far easier to distinguish the subtleties that marked the characters. This was a world where a simple hand gesture could mean many things, drawing on ancient Japanese Noh traditions.

The thing noted by many people is that there isn’t a single drop of blood in this production. Rather, blood was shown by flowing red ribbons, such as those in the photographs. Even when Chiron and Demetrius’ throats were cut, it was red cloth that spilled into Lavinia’s bowl.

Special mention has to go to the spectacular Shun Oguri as Aaron, who was the best thing about the play. Menacing, articulate and wolf-like in his leaps around the stage, he could have stepped straight out of an anime comic. His eyes, piercing even from five rows back, watched everything, and when he was on stage there was always a sense of imminent danger.

The opening also lent a lot of interest to the production, as all the cast and crew milled about on stage and in the foyer as if in their dressing rooms, with the backstage announcements being made to the whole auditorium along with instructions to remove curtain rails and set the stage. It seemed that they wanted to make it clear from the start that this was a play, and certainly the naturalness of their movements and chatting contrasted sharply with the moment when Saturninus and Bassianus wheeled round and jumped straight into their ‘acting’ personas.

I liked the production a lot, but it left me a bit cold, and I’m not sure why. I think it was possibly the complete lack of humour, even in the normally very amusing fly-killing scene. The only attempts at a comic break were with the clown, who appeared with an arrow through his head, but he too was acting in a particular style and just didn’t engage me. The production was wonderful, but took itself very seriously, with a very severe approach to the characters and mournful orchestral music playing through the sound system. Even the bows were serious, with audience members taking flowers up to the two leads.

That sounds far more negative than I meant it to, but I’ll leave it because it’s how I honestly felt. The production certainly brought out the tragedy of the story, with Young Lucius left onstage at the end with Aaron’s baby (in a nod to Julie Taymor’s film, I assume), screaming out into the audience over and over at the horror of what he has witnessed.

I’d certainly want to see more of Ninagawa’s work, especially as my only real experience of other Japanese Shakespeare is through the films of Kurosawa. It’s nice to see something done on so large a scale, and would be interesting to see his treatments of other plays. For my own enjoyment, though, I definitely preferred Cheek By Jowl and Dash Arts.

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