Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 10 November, 2004

Yukio Ninagawa is Japan’s best-known modern theatre director. He’s been coming regularly to Britain for nearly twenty years, and was even given an honorary CBE a couple of years ago.  His productions are often indefinably magical, making you look at classic plays in a new light or giving you an undreamt-of experience with new work.  However, I’m afraid I usually find his English-language shows disappointing.

This production of Shakespeare’s greatest play (according to a recent RSC poll) is visually striking and elegant, thanks mainly to Tamotsu Harada’s inventive lighting design.  On an almost completely bare stage, Harada plots shattered mazes with beams of light, or sets bare bulbs swinging unsettlingly above the actors.  Ninagawa’s direction also makes the story crystal clear. Perhaps too clear.

The text, slightly cut, takes barely three hours to play here (not including interval). Lines are often taken at a tremendous lick. This may be one reason for keeping the dramatic interpretation fairly straightforward and followable.  Such clarity may be fine for students.  But I’m afraid it does nothing for the freshness of the play. Old theatregoers have seen it all before; new ones will feel little reason to persevere.

I must also admit that Michael Maloney, as an actor, just doesn’t excite me. He’s clearly skilled and intelligent, but it’s as if you can always see the levers he’s pulling to get the effect.  Reviewers sometimes write about an actor giving a “reading” of a role. That’s exactly what Maloney does here.  He gives a first-rate essay on Hamlet, or a demonstration of Hamletness, but you never feel he inhabits the part.

The supporting cast, led by Peter Egan and Frances Tomelty (a year older than Maloney, and playing his mother!), are likewise efficient rather than sparky.  The week after next, the RSC’s Hamlet opens in the West End. Toby Stephens gives a passionate performance, but 50 years out of date. Here, Maloney is  contemporary, but largely bloodless.  It’s not a good autumn for portrayals of the Prince. Roll on the next batch.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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