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Yukio Ninagawa says he will never work with English actors again. The declaration comes towards the end of an interview with the Japanese director as he prepares to bring his production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to the Barbican Theatre in London. Yet he is feted and admired in the UK, having made many visits here both with productions by his own company, based in a theatre in Saitama near Tokyo, and with English-language commissions.

However, he has come to feel that the difference in approach is too radical. “European theatre originates with Greek theatre, which was comprised of dialogues and of characters in stark confrontation; when you look at Japanese theatre, it’s more blurred and nebulous,” he says. “It’s very difficult for Japanese theatre to become text-based or language-based; people go to see rather than to listen.”

This divide between European and Asian theatre is, Ninagawa says, getting bigger. “This has made it very difficult for me to direct English-language productions. I did try my best to discuss and debate with English actors about my approach, but I think it’s better for me to direct Japanese actors and take my productions abroad to deliver the universality of the play.”

He cites an instance from his 1999 production of King Lear starring Sir Nigel Hawthorne. During Lear’s great speech in the storm scene, a number of stones were dropped on to the stage. “My concept was that the stones falling represented the destruction of the world he had created,” Ninagawa explains.

“It was timed precisely so that it went with the line of the language; the speed and positions of these stones were calculated.” But as the tour progressed, he found the stone-work growing more slapdash, with neither actors nor crew understanding the imagery. “This incident has remained in my heart for many years and I have decided that it is symbolic of the difference, and after this I have decided that I will never direct English actors again.”

He says this without rancour, although there is perhaps an element of diplomatic euphemism when he says of English audiences: “Their judgment is very clear, quick and frank. This is what gives me the greatest pleasure about working elsewhere.”

Our interview is conducted through an interpreter, as Ninagawa does not feel fluent in English. Indeed, I have often detected (or imagined) a corresponding diffidence in his English-language productions, compared with an assurance and exuberance in his Japanese shows. It was, I think, more than just the experience of seeing Coriolanus play (in Nagoya, the previous evening) to a Japanese audience that made me feel it as a kind of homecoming after productions such as that Lear and an austere Hamlet in 2004 starring Michael Maloney.

The performances seem more thoroughly integrated with the visual concept (before he got involved with theatre, the young Ninagawa intended to train as a painter) in a way that finds the universality the director always seeks to convey.

This is clearly one of his principal drives as a director, one that transcends the apparent contradiction between his forswearing of English-language productions and his ongoing project to stage every one of Shakespeare’s plays. (As the Royal Shakespeare Company reaches the end of its year-long Complete Works season, Ninagawa is two-thirds of the way through his own 13-year plan.)

“Japanese people learn about Shakespeare at school as the most famous foreign playwright; a lot of his tragedies and comedies that are famous are performed here,” he says, “but other less famous plays are also very interesting, so I think it is important that public theatres should give the public access to these productions... not on a commercial level – I’m not worried about recouping expenses.”

Was there a particular reason for choosing to stage Coriolanus at this particular time? It is not difficult, almost wherever one looks in world politics, to find some parallels with the warlike leader whose downfall comes because he refuses to acknowledge the role of the people in polity. “When you look at the public leaders of the world, it’s quite natural to choose Coriolanus,” Ninagawa acknowledges, but goes no further. He has said that he dislikes explaining his productions, preferring to let them speak for themselves; yet, as a leading figure on the international theatre circuit, he has regularly to face journalists asking him what some aspect or other of a production is “about”.

Partly because of this reticence, partly due to my own awe, on at least one occasion during our interview I make an extremely long-winded, rambling observation, to be rewarded with a succinct “Hai”. When I ask him about his remarks regarding a “new approach” heralded by Coriolanus, he jokes: “Was that written in the programme? I haven’t read the programme!”

In any case, Coriolanus needs no explanation. Its set almost effortlessly straddles European and Asian worlds, with Buddhist statues arranged on a huge set of civic steps that occupy virtually the entire stage. These steps offer a clear visual index of the play’s power struggles, as the Roman patricians and crowd surge up, down and across them, and entire battles are fought on them.

It calls for great energy from actors, many of whom are not in the first bloom of youth. “Actually, the steps you saw last night were two steps lower than the original plan,” Ninagawa apologises. “I was telling the actors not to be lazy, that they should train themselves like monks so that they can run up and down these steps!”

Most wonderful of all is the perfect clarity such a production gives to the love/hate relationship between Coriolanus and his non-Roman counterpart – first rival, later ally – Aufidius. Many western directors fumblingly stage the relationship as homoerotic, but a
Japanese context offers immediate illumination by placing the two men within the samurai code of bushido, that martial honour and respect that is now alien to European sensibilities.

“That is exactly right,” Ninagawa enthuses. “They respect each other a lot, and they want to fight in a beautiful way, although there is a betrayal.” At the performance I saw, this was clearly felt by the performers: Masanobu Katsumura, who plays Aufidius, was weeping as openly as I have ever seen any actor at a curtain-call.

In contrast, after the interview I was privileged to sit in on a rehearsal of his next Shakespeare work, Love’s Labour’s Lost, with an all-male cast. This was evidently the first time the “ladies” had worn their Italianate 18th-century costumes in front of the rest of the cast, and so the usual moves went on when not performing scenes: here an I’m-not-really-like-this swagger, there a let’s-give-it-a-go mince.

At one point Ninagawa pointed up to me as a role model for the actor playing Costard – telling him, I think, to walk in his heavy padding the way I do with my natural bulk. It shows every sign of being a delightful production, which I hope will also visit Britain. But first, the strength and lucidity of Coriolanus, with Ninagawa’s own visually striking form of step aerobics.

‘Coriolanus’ is at the Barbican Theatre, London, on April 25-29. Tel +44 (0) 845 120 7550

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