Toni Racklin, Head of Theatre, Barbican – visit to Tokyo to see the Ninagawa Company in Cymbeline with producer Thelma Holt

Posted to General with 0 Comments on 30.04.12 by Sarah Ellis

Ninagawa Company in Cymbeline

(Production photo by Takahiro Watanable)

Cherry trees and their blossoms go by the name of sakura in Japan and carry great cultural significance.  The new blossom sums up all sorts of delicious things – Spring, good health, new beginnings.  To find myself in Tokyo at this time felt auspicious.

In Ueno Park people sit under the trees to picnic and appreciate their beauty. Wonderful feasts of colourful food are spread out before them. I am deeply envious and want to have a taste of everything.

The Park is the setting for the National Museum of Western Art, designed by Le Corbusier.The building has great shapes and angles – light is shed in crafty ways, to illuminate the paintings, while at the same time protecting them from damage. It feels so much like the Barbican, both inside and out. This isn’t too surprising, given Le Corbusier’s huge influence on the architects who designed it. Talk about a home from home – although we can’t lay claim to quite the same level of cherry blossom action in EC2…

Saitama Arts Centre, where Yukio Ninagawa is Artistic Director, and where his productions all premiere, is another modern complex, again reminiscent of the Barbican, with various auditoria and exhibition spaces. The theatre itself is a thousand-seater, similar in construction to our own main stage.

The dress rehearsal of Cymbeline was both exciting and intense. The company for this production comprises 23 actors and strong technical forces. Several company members are very familiar to us at the Barbican, having been involved with many of our previous seasons.

Indeed, the company has presented work on the main stage more than a dozen times over the years.  Cymbeline has a particularly complex plot, so I expected to be quite reliant on the synopsis. Yet the clarity with which Ninagawa introduces the characters and unfolds the plot makes Shakespeare’s story wonderfully clear. The second act reveals the director’s epic use of the stage with his rich, dynamic battle scenes. Poignantly, he uses imagery and a soundscape derived from last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. Ninagawa has an extraordinary way of melding the real with the fictional, the East with the West, the historic with the current. He weaves elements of Noh and Kabuki alongside the modern and the innovative. Nowhere is this better illustrated than within this latest creation.

After the dress rehearsal Thelma and I went back into Tokyo to talk more about the production and our impressions ofJapan. We chose to go to the cafe on the 25th floor of our hotel. The panoramic, illuminated view of the city at night was stunning. But the evening’s drama was far from over. We suddenly became aware of the fact that the liquid inside our glasses was swishing from side to side – it felt like we were being tossed on the sea. Thelma, who has been to Japan many times during the 26 years she has worked with Ninagawa and his company, calmly announced that we were experiencing an earth tremor.

This one was caused by yet another aftershock of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant – even though it’s about 200 miles fromTokyo. A full year after the quake that caused such devastation toJapan, the effects can still be felt. It brought home the impact that this catastrophic event has had on everyone in this country and why Ninagawa must have felt an urgent and inescapable need to include reference to it in his production.

The next night was the actual opening of Cymbeline. It is a Japanese theatrical tradition to send huge bouquets of flowers to the actors with messages on boards stuck in them from friends, relatives and other actors, and display them in the main foyer. Everything came together on stage – all the notes taken from the night before had been worked in, and the show was watertight and fabulous. We marvelled at the décor – gorgeous lacquered Japanese screens that seem to float on and off stage, a larger-than-life sculpture of Romulus and Remus, a gigantic moon and a magical coup de theatre at the end. A real feast for the eyes, with the company’s trademark lighting as staggeringly beautiful as always. The two actors who play Posthumus (Hiroshi Abe) and Imogen (Shinobu Otake) are extremely well known film and TV actors. (For the duration of our trip it became a great game for Thelma and I to spot their faces from advertising posters across Tokyo!). The acting, as usual, was outstanding – the regal and heartbroken Cymbeline is played by Kohtaloh Yoshida and there is a brilliant physical, comical interaction between Masanobu Katsumura as Cloten and Keita Oishi as Pisanio.

Afterwards we all gathered backstage and tucked into snacks and drinks – it was friendly and informal. I was asked to make a speech, so I talked about the Barbican’s 30th birthday which we are celebrating this year, the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 Festival, and how thrilled we were that Ninagawa and his company would be there to share it all with us. Thelma also made a heart-warming speech to the company that so obviously adores her. And the Master himself responded with how they were all looking forward to the London season.

All in all, a fantastic trip and the perfect prelude to Ninagawa Company’s hotly-anticipated visit to the Barbican.

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