The efforts of Ninagawa Yukio to draw upon traditional Japanese theatrical techniques in the staging of Western classics arose from his desire to break from the mimetic, Western style of staging plays and to revitalize aspects of classical Japanese theater that had fallen out of use in modern "new theater" (shingeki) drama. Moreover, he wished to divest Shakespeare of the highbrow status it held in Japan and popularize Shakespeare by incorporating familiar imagery from indigenous culture. Owing to their highly visual approach, Ninagawa's productions have also enjoyed surprising success in the West, where his interpretations provide striking new perspectives on Shakespeare and other classics. Ninagawa has gained worldwide recognition and in Great Britain his work is often hailed as profoundly illuminating. This paper investigates Ninagawa's production of Hamlet (1998), which ran for eight performances at the Barbican Centre, London, as part of the Barbican International Theatre Event series. In this revival, the author served as backstage interpreter between the Japanese and the British stage crews.
The paper examines four major aspects of Ninagawa's approach. First, it focuses on his transposition of the play in time and space: as a framing device Ninagawa sets the play in the dressing rooms of a theater, underscoring the themes of pretense and dissembling. Second, the paper examines Ninagawa's symbolic use of curtains and stairways. Third, it discusses the allegorical use of the Japanese doll tier (hinadan) as a central motif to highlight the hierarchy of the Danish court and the precariousness of power. Finally, it discusses the stage techniques which Ninagawa borrows from kabuki and nō to enhance the production's theatricality. The warm reception this Hamlet enjoyed in both Britain and Japan demonstrates how Ninagawa Yukio's stage iconography transcends cultural, linguistic, and political borders.