SHINTOKU-MARU
Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 15 October, 1997

In terms of creating captivating stage images which seem able to connect directly with the emotions, Yukio Ninagawa is one of the most consistently inspirational directors in the world. Whether a given production seems successful overall or not, one invariably comes away haunted by the pictures he has painted onstage; Ninagawa in fact trained first as a painter before discovering his theatrical metier, and often begins his work on a play by finding or being visited by an overarching visual aesthetic for the piece.

Since the revelations that were his productions of Macbeth and Medea in the Edinburgh Festival a decade ago, Ninagawa has made a more or less annual series of visits to these shores under the aegis of producer Thelma Holt. This, however, is the first time the company has presented a modern Japanese play in Japanese (with a taped synopsis read by Ninagawa associate Alan Rickman). Shintoku-Maru, adapted by Rio Kishida from the late Shuji Terayama's play, is a broth of hyperreality, surrealism and the supernatural; incestuous tension, a visit to the underworld, a "mother shop" where Shintoku's father buys a new parent for him and a supporting cast of sideshow figures each periodically bubble to the surface of Terayama's challenging, bewildering work.

The first and last images we see are those of a crowded street populated by a variety of market traders and other characters, lit from above by the jets of feathery sparks given off by a group of buzzsaws applied to a metal gantry; vessels laden with candles float by in the underworld; Shintoku's major confrontation with his stepmother Nadeshiko takes place amid a shower of tissue-paper snow beneath an enormous moon, which also witnesses their ultimate acknowledgement of love for each other. Events are accompanied more or less throughout by Akira Miyagawa's gently rocky score.

The pictures are astounding, but feel discrete rather than connected. Ninagawa seems to have applied himself to each segment of Terayama's rich and puzzling text without having found a unifying vision. Where the director's 1994 production of the even more episodic Peer Gynt was at least spanned by the visual motif of the endlessly peeling onion, there is no single discernible path through Shintoku-Maru either for Ninagawa or the audience.

Kayoko Shiraishi as Nadeshiko oscillates as demanded between wifely devotion and (literally) spellbinding wickedness, and fifteen-year-old Tatsuya Fujiwara, in his professional stage debut, handles the contradictions and confusions of Shintoku with more than assurance. After 90 minutes, one leaves as haunted by moments as with any Ninagawa production, but unsure on this occasion what exactly is doing the haunting.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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