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Asian Theatre Journal 21.1 (2004) 116-118

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Pericles, Prince of Tyre. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Ninagawa Yukio. The Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, London, April 5, 2003. In Japanese with English supertitles.

What is it about Shakespeare's Pericles? How could a production of this seldom-seen, minor romance conclude with a standing ovation following twenty minutes of audible weeping by a London audience composed of typically nondemonstrative Britishers and a few Japanese tourists? Barring the reincarnation of Olivier himself, such things almost never happen at the National Theatre, where stiff upper lips and polite, limp applause are more often the norm. Surely there is something more going on than the undeniable aesthetic pleasures and exotic thrills of a brilliant Japanese production.

Odd as it may seem, this was the fourth time I have seen Pericles. The first was around 1975, when the Acting Company toured a version set in a madhouse—a white-costumed cross between The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Marat/ Sade, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Then two years ago a tedious, amateurish, outdoor summer show trampled the grassy courtyard of London's Lincoln's Inn, followed last summer by the Royal Shakespeare Company's superbly entertaining, orientalist, swashbuckling version that played like Cirque du Soleil at London's Roundhouse. These first three productions confirmed my opinion that Pericles is merely an inconsequential, sprawling, but mildly entertaining work.

After seeing Ninagawa Yukio's extraordinary and very Japanese version, however, I have totally altered my view of the play. It has been revealed as a work of astounding depth, beautiful heart, and powerful characterizations. The complex plot involves riddles, incest, treachery, lies, betrayal, attempted murder, the resurrection of the dead, brothels, chastity, tournaments, [End Page 116] tempests at sea, madness, virtue, pirates, kidnapping, comic fishermen, disguise, mistaken identity, families torn asunder, the appearance of a goddess, recognition, marriage, the restoration of kingship, and ultimate redemption. Perhaps it takes someone like Ninagawa, who is approaching the play as a foreign work, to see what is really there beneath the jumble.

This production opens on a nearly bare, round stage—a dark seashore littered with metal barrels, each with a tall water faucet. Offstage the sounds of hammering (Kabuki stagehands building the next set? Distant gunshots?) mingle with the sweet strains of Western classical music. From the auditorium, a ragged procession of weary beggars, refugees, one-legged amputees, the detritus of the war-torn twentieth century, stumbles onto the stage. After drinking, bathing, and purifying themselves in the flowing water, the refugees form a diagonal line and bow to the audience. From the crowd, a blind biwa player (Ichimura Masachika) and his female companion (Shiraishi Kayoko) approach the audience. Together these superb performers portray Gower, the chorus/narrator of Shakespeare's play, whose initial lines are: "To sing a song that old was sung,/From ashes ancient Gower is come."They sing in archaic Japanese while digitized signboards glow yellow with the English words. Japan and the West, past and present, theatre and life—from the very first moments, Ninagawa lets us know that this is a site of cultural and moral confusion.

Each of these two versatile actors—as well as Tanaka Yuko and Sagawa Tetsuro—portrays multiple roles (four for Ichimura, three for Shiraishi, two for Tanaka, and four for Sagawa), a delightful choice that permits kabuki-like demonstrations of rapid character and costume transformation. They are joined by the superb Uchino Masaaki as Pericles—a character who himself transforms from innocent youth to aged madness, suffering loss and ultimate restoration in a tale which echoes that of Job. Uchino's performance is incandescent and startling—by turns comic, tragic, passionate, romantic, righteous, terrified, bitter, tormented, mad, and saintly. The play chronicles Pericles' sixteen-year journey through the uncharted seas of life, his agonies, his loss of loved ones, and ultimately the confirmation of universal justice through apparent miracles. At his lowest point, the saintly Marina, the daughter he thought was dead, literally recalls him to life in an extraordinarily moving and delicate scene of...