Barbican Theatre, London EC2
  Opened 24 March, 2009

In this job one gets used to long Shakespeare productions, but usually these are of Hamlet or King Lear. Three and a half hours for Twelfth Night is going it a bit. However, this is the latest British visit from director Yukio Ninagawa’s long-term project to direct the complete Shakespeare; it is also, perhaps surprisingly, his first kabuki production. The Shochiku Grand Kabuki company is the institutional steward of the form, and this cast is led by the admired Onoe Kikunosuke V. (Kabuki is organised into professional “families”, with stage names passed on as honorifics.) In keeping with the onnagata tradition, the male Onoe plays Viola, who disguises herself as Cesario. He doubles as Viola’s twin brother Sebastian; kabuki also has a tradition of quick-change, and in the final scene the meeting of the twins is handled by the entrance of a masked actor dressed as Viola.
But it is not Onoe, nor the acclaimed onnagata Nakamura Tokizo V as Olivia, who impresses most. Rather, the combination of Ichikawa Kamejiro II’s wonderfully warm and playful performance and the re-shaping of the script to accord more with Kabuki expectations has made the usually minor character of Maria a comic delight. She is at every point the driving force behind “the lighter people” in the broader comic strand of the plot, though Nakamura Kanjaku V as an epicene, pink-clad Sir Andrew Aguecheek runs her close.
On to the conventions of the form Ninagawa overlays a more contemporary freedom and fluidity of performance. The same combination is evident in the design: huge mirror walls reflect graceful little bridges, Hokusai-style seascapes give way to a “box tree” eavesdropping scene played amid what look like a group of abstract-impressionist oast-houses. The rewriting and repointing of the play also offer intriguing fresh perspectives: the evening more or less begins with an entirely new shipwreck scene, and more or less ends with the humiliated steward Malvolio, instead of rumbling darkly “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”, chasing one of the other servants offstage Keystone-style. This is not a production for casual visitors, but if you are fairly familiar with the play and keen to see it paradoxically revivified by placing it within a centuries-old tradition, it will succeed admirably.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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