The Ninagawa Company, under the stewardship of Yukio Ninagawa, has built up a fearsome reputation in world theatre. They stand as the equal of any post-war company from Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop through to Chicago’s Steppenwolf, whilst stylistically they are as uniquely identifiable as anything from Peter Brook or Simon McBurney.
Famed for his Shakespeare, Yukio Ninagawa has turned his attention to one of the most problematic plays in the Bard’s canon; Cymbeline. It is a difficult play to love and one that comes packaged with all kinds of traps for a modern audience. The plot winds and winds and seems unsure of what it wants to be, containing elements of romance, farce and tragedy. It has simplistic plot devices, like cross-dressing and misidentification, reminiscent of earlier plays but also contains the heavily allegorical language and non-human elements, in this case Jupiter descending on an eagle, that place it alongside The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest as one of the later plays.
Frank Kermode described the play as a tragi-comic romance and suggests that it may have been an in-joke for audiences who would have had a much better understanding of the text and references to earlier plays. None of which makes it any easier for a modern audience to unpick the complexities of the plot.
Luckily going to see a Ninagawa production is to have your visual senses wrapped in cotton wool and taken on a journey where the simplicity of images masks the masterful craftsmanship working behind the scenes. The technical understanding of balance is superbly illustrated again and again throughout the evening; light and shade, simplicity and complexity, the tonality is in harmony so that everything works towards the whole and the audience is never aware of the mechanics. Like other Japanese traditions that have bewitched Europeans over the years, from woodcuts to sushi, the skill rests on the ability to hide an incredible complexity behind a deceptively simple front.
It is difficult to fairly assess the skill of the actors without speaking Japanese and since the production leans so heavily on the visual, the rest of this review will take a radical detour and will look to provide a sense of the evening through the images it has left behind.
You can choose any one of a number of plot strands to call the centre of Cymbeline. Above we see the romance at the heart of the play, that of Posthumus and Imogen, as they are parted and again as they are reunited. As is traditional in Shakespeare the lovers must face many barriers before finally winning through in the end. However the play is made problematic, particularly to a modern audience, by the fact that Posthumus acts in such an unreasonable manner for much of the play, doubting his wife’s fidelity almost as soon as he leaves England before hiring his servant to murder her. That kind of level of trust does not always lead to happy relationships.
As the beating heart of the play, Hiroshi Abe, as the exiled Posthumus, and Shinobu Otake’s Imogen, bring the romance to life despite spending most of the play separated. They draw out the character traits despite the language barrier, with Hiroshi embodying the stoic and duty-bound Posthumus, accepting of the State’s decision to banish him before later preparing to sacrifice himself in realisation at the fate he believes he inflicted on Imogen.