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Yukio Ninagawa at rehearsals in Tokyo in 2013

The actors shuffle uneasily: a large troupe of them, several dozen, each standing behind a tartan-patterned wheelchair in the wings of the stage. Their director, who has been waiting for several minutes for them to find their cues, barks at them, telling them to hurry up. They are eating into valuable rehearsal time.

Finally, they are in the right position and ready to start. To the accompaniment of solitary piano chords, another group walks slowly forward to the front of the stage, laughing and chatting. The music cranks up, and they begin to tango, old and young passionately entwined. The scene is choreographed with millimetric precision. When the dance comes to a halt, the director nods his approval, not overenthusiastically, and the actors are allowed to take five. They are getting there.

We are in the Saitama Arts Theater, in the northern part of Greater Tokyo, in a modern building that is one of the most important crucibles of world theatre. This is the base of Yukio Ninagawa, the 79-year-old Japanese theatre director who is, once more, putting the finishing touches to his latest production of a Shakespeare play.

This time it is Richard II, and Ninagawa has allowed me to watch the opening scenes in rehearsal. I don’t have the benefit of surtitles, but the opening triangular exchanges between the king (Kenshi Uchida, sickly pallored and limp-postured, looking like one of the Ramones), Mowbray and Bolingbroke are riveting, full of suppressed animosity and homoerotic tension.

Ninagawa himself is in a wheelchair, in frail health but scrupulous in his attention to detail. His direction is administered roughly, the actors quick to correct their faults. There is, as might be expected, more emphasis on their movement than on the way they are speaking their lines.

It has been one of the theatrical treats of London life to see Ninagawa’s adapt­ations of Shakespeare arrive in the capital every year or so. They are like no other versions, combining lyrical dreamscapes with a rigorous regard for ritual and an expressionistic intensity that can make homegrown productions seem pallid by comparison.

It is a criticism often made of British versions of Shakespeare that they are simply too in thrall to the playwright’s ravishing poetry to remember Hamlet’s urgent words “the play’s the thing”. With Ninagawa, it is easy to forget about the words altogether, lost in the beauty of the set and rich sense of symbolism.

Ninagawa’s eighth version of ‘Hamlet’, with Tatsuya Fujiwara (centre) in the title role

“I was overwhelmed by the variety of his language,” he tells me in one of the theatre’s dressing rooms, when I ask about his first encounter with Shakespeare. “I felt really challenged by its intelligence.” But his signature Japoniste style, occasionally criticised as exotic-for-its-own-sake, was devised, he insists, to make the work accessible for the audiences of his native country.

“It may seem contradictory, but as I read Shakespeare’s work, I tried to understand it in terms of Japanese contexts. And the language overlapped in my mind with certain Japanese realities. So I was faced with two imperatives: I wanted to understand it for myself, but I also wanted to be able to communicate it to a Japanese audience. That double image always stayed in my mind.”

The Ninagawa Company’s breakthrough came in 1985 when its Macbeth was performed at the Edinburgh Festival, the first of the director’s Shakespeare productions to travel overseas. Set in the late 16th-century part of the samurai era, in and around a giant Buddhist altar, the staging blurred the boundaries between the secular and the sacred. Its otherworldly climax was the greatest reinterpretation of all: the forest of Birnam Wood turned into cherry blossoms in full bloom, which gently floated to the ground to the accompaniment of Fauré’s Requiem to signal the king’s demise.

The reception of the play in Britain, Ninagawa says, gave him huge encouragement. “British people understood the work much better than Japanese people and that supported me. It gave us a lot of courage.” He says the critics of his own country gave him negative reviews early in his career. “They thought [the work] wasn’t authentic enough. It was too different from the way it was played in the UK.”

We talk about another seminal Ninagawa moment, from his mid-1980s production of Euripides’s Medea, when the play’s protagonist, after the rejection of her lover Jason, whirled in a circle, spewing out a seemingly endless red ribbon from her mouth to the austere music of Handel. The inspiration behind the idea came, as it were, from the gut.

A scene from ‘Kafka on the Shore’

“I was really stuck, wondering what was the best way to denote this woman’s sorrow and despair,” says Ninagawa. “I was having sleepless nights, and my stomach started to hurt from the anxiety. At one moment, I was standing on the subway and it hurt so much that I thought I might start to vomit blood. And then suddenly I had this idea of the ribbon. I thought it was the perfect symbol of Medea’s agony.”

The Ninagawa Company returns to London later this month with the director’s latest version of Hamlet, a play he has attempted with seven previous productions. He is not alone in finding the play endlessly fascinating. “Every time I read it I find something new,” he says. “And as I get older, different lines mean different things to me, depending on which part of my brain I am using.

Hamlet is like climbing a mountain, a very high mountain. And I am still climbing it.” Does he feel that he is close to the top? “Every time I am near the summit, I fall a little bit. And then sometimes I drop right back to the bottom. It is hard.” The company is also bringing to London’s Barbican its adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

Hamlet promises to play with our perceptions of time: the title role is being played by popular Japanese actor Tatsuya Fujiwara, who also played the role in 2003, aged just 21, in a Ninagawa production set on a basketball court. This time, the director is tackling the play “in a completely new fashion”, set in a traditional Japanese apartment of the 19th century, when Hamlet was first introduced to the country.

“I am trying to mix the theme of how Hamlet was received in Japan back then, with our contemporary ideas on the play. It describes the impact of this extraordinary playwright, and also examines how Japan has evolved into what it is today.” It is the mark of a Ninagawa production that it does not lack ambition.

I ask if he thinks that western theatre has very much to learn from traditional Japanese forms such as Noh and kabuki. “I don’t think that is possible in their current format,” he replies briskly. What would it take? “The way they are played now, they are all about movement, they are not concerned with reflecting what is happening in the world now. They become exercises in formality.”

He is equally dismissive of contemporary Japanese theatre. “Issues are not being discussed in the right way,” he complains. The new generation of playwrights is overly concerned with attracting younger audiences, but failing to “present the bigger picture”.

So Ninagawa’s gaze remains ever-westwards. I tell him I was surprised to learn that he had directed Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia in 2009, an experience that he immediately describes as “a lot of fun”. It makes me smile to think of these ageing masters of the theatre, the one lauded for his brilliant wordplay, the other for his sumptuous visual style, coming together to rake over the intellectual ferment of pre-revolutionary Russia, and having good, plain “fun”.

“It was a fascinating opportunity,” the director stresses, “because this is theatre that faces all of the challenges of the world today”.

In the cross-cultural melting pot of Ninagawa’s unique theatrical world, the play is always the thing.

‘Hamlet’, May 21-24; ‘Kafka on the Shore’, May 28-30, barbican.org.uk

Photographs: Getty; Takahiro Watanabe

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