Twelfth Night @ Barbican, London

directed by
Yukio Ninagawa
As the suffix suggests, this is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night but not as we know it.

This Shochiku Grand Kabuki version, directed by the internationally renowned Yukio Ninagawa, certainly presents the much-loved story in an unfamiliarly exotic style and setting but fails to sheds much new light on the drama.

Performed in Japanese, with Shakespeare’s text being cut and augmented by new dialogue (the latter in italics in the English surtitles), the show is an intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying hybrid of Western and Eastern theatre traditions.
Twelfth Night would seem to be an appropriate vehicle for the all-male Kabuki theatre in which music and dance share equal importance with acting: male actors performed the female parts in Shakespeare’s time of course, and the cross-dressing in this particular play throws up interesting possibilities about gender role-playing.<

However, this is a missed opportunity as there is little erotic frisson here in the sexually ambivalent relationships between Viola/Cesario, Orsino and Olivia. Maybe for Anglophone audience members something is ‘lost in translation’, with the rhythmic intonation of the lines having a distancing effect, but the exaggeratedly stylized Kabuki performances do not seem to capture the subtlety of Shakespeare’s verse or the complexity of his characters.

Moreover, the decision to have the same actor play both Viola/Cesario and her twin brother Sebastian (Onoe Kikunosuke V) and both Malvolio and Feste (Onoe Kikugoro VII) causes unnecessary complications in the plot. Because obviously these dual characters cannot thus appear on stage at the same time, in the denouement another actor wearing a mask has to impersonate Viola, while it is Fabian not Feste who taunts the imprisoned ‘mad’ Malvolio.

In fact, surprisingly, it is the low comedy rather than the bittersweet romance that works best in this production. The farcical duel between the equally reluctant Cesario and Andrew Aguecheek is well done, while the duping of Malvolio in the famous garden/letter scene is very amusing, with his subsequent appearance wearing all yellow and an idiotically complacent smile paying broad comic dividends. But there is not much suggestion of a dark side to this boisterous humour, so that Malvolio’s humiliation and even torture does not evoke much pain and his vengeful curse at the end counts for little.

Visually there is much for the eye to feast on, with Ninagawa being the designer as well as the director of his shows, which invariably look stunning. Mirrored surfaces (taking the cue from the text and the idea of twin siblings) often show multi-faceted images, while there are gorgeous sets of dropping blossom trees and a bridge over a flowery meadow, not to mention the extraordinarily colourful kimonos. Modern high-technology, including extensive use of a revolve, bolsters the traditional Kabuki theatre but the overall impression is of a beautiful exterior without much heart or soul. However, the live music (mainly played off-stage) does add much to create an otherworldly atmosphere.

Many of the cast are legendary Kabuki stars in Japan. Onoe Kikugoro VII, who traces his Kabuki family lineage back to the eighteenth century, gets the chance to show his versatility in playing the pompous puritan Malvolio and the clever clown Feste, but the former is insufficiently bitter and the latter lacks vitality. His son (and presumably heir to the tradition) Onoe Kikunosuke V does better in showing some of the heartbreak of the unrequited love of Viola for Orsino (a one-dimensional Nakamura Kinnosuke II), though there is not much sexual tension in her relations with Olivia (a rather aged Nakamura Tokizo V).

Ichikawa Sadanji IV lacks punch as the cruel practical-joker Toby Belch, while Nakamura Kanjaku V makes an amusingly effeminate Aguecheek, if a bit over the top. Special mention must be made of Ichikawa Kamejiro II, who as the mischievous Maria, steals every scene she is in.

At over three hours’ running length, this rather laboured show compares unfavourably with the recent sparkling Twelfth Night from the Donmar in the West End though of course this is a very different kind of production. This is the first time Ninagawa has worked in the Kabuki performance style and likely to be his last. As the ninth show Ninagawa has staged at the Barbican (many of which have been highly successful Shakespeare productions), he will no doubt be back again with far better results.

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